THE GREAT ARMOUR OF THE SOLITUDE OF BODHICITTA: 8th Karmapa’s interest and reasons why big monasteries can become like ‘fortresses’ of conflict and sectarianism, and his interest and joy at practising in isolated, difficult retreat places, and the meaning of real ‘solitude’ from the’ Bodhisattva perspective  (17th Karmapa Spring 2023 teachings, Day Nine)

“If you don’t have any self-interest, but you also have the bodhicitta/mind of awakening of the Mahayana and you are wearing the armour of that, then whether one is staying in towns or crowds or wherever, that is the greatest solitude of the bodhisattva. The great bodhisattvas don’t need to go to retreat/remote places, solitude means being free of, and separated from self-interest. It does not mean being free of any distractions and diversions, it means being free of the self-interest and also in addition you have the relative bodhicitta. This must not be undiminished. If you have this, then no matter where you stay, no matter how many people around you, that kind of bodhicitta is staying in the greatest solitude. Someone who is not isolated from thoughts of self-interest and they don’t have such good practice of relative bodhicitta, they could spend millions of years without anyone else at all, staying in completely unpopulated areas but in terms of bodhicitta they do not have the greatest solitude of a bodhisattva.”

—17th Karmapa (Day 9, Spring Teachings 2023)


On day Nine of the Spring Teachings, the 17th Karmapa spoke about the 31st Verse of the 8th Karmapa’s Excellent Deeds, and of Mikyo Dorje’s interest and preference for staying in isolated and difficult retreat places, as well as his lack of interest in building huge monasteries with lots of sangha members, within which there was a great danger of them becoming like ‘fortresses’ of monastics who were not practising Dharma properly and competitive and jealous and using the appearance of Dharma to give them comfort and livelihood for this life only.  He gave the example, of how Mikyo Dorje did not covet or flatter sponsors, like the Chinese Emperor to get funds for such activities either. For more on the teenage, 8th Karmapa’s refusal to visit the Chinese Emperor, Zhèngdé Dì (正德帝) see the transcript of 17th Karmapa’s teaching here.

The 17th Karmapa also explained how Mikyo Dorje himself did not need to stay in isolated places because anyone with the ‘armour’ of bodhicitta, would naturally feel solitude wherever they are, in a crowd or alone. Whereas vice versa someone could stay in isolated places but not have that genuine solitude because they were merely enjoying themselves, rather than actually practising genuine Dharma.

One thing that comes across clearly about the 8th Karmapa was that as a young teenager onwards, he was someone with a lot of personal integrity, honesty and lack of being influenced too much by what others thought or said of him. A rare jewel in this worldly samsara indeed!

Music? In My Solitude by Billie Holliday and Nature Boy by Nat King Cole.

Dedicated to all sincere practitioners being able to practice in isolated places suitable for retreat without distractions! 

Written by Adele Tomlin, 4th May 2023.


Transcript 17th Karmapa teaching (Day 9, Spring 2023)

Yesterday, we spoke about how during his life, Mikyo Dorje founded monastic colleges for study of Sutras and also founded tantric colleges for the study of Vajrayana, and also founded retreat centres for practising Mahamudra, the six yogas of Naropa and so on, and the paths of means and liberation. So yesterday, I spoke as an illustration of the Gatsel Karma Zhunglug Ling. If I spoke about all of them that would take a lot of time.

So today, I will speak about the 31st Verse of the Excellent Deeds, so if  speak about two verse every day I will run out of things to say [laughs], so am slowing down a bit. Today, I will only speak about this one verse. 

There is quite a bit to say about Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje but I am having some difficulty of saying immediately and in  one point about what Mikyo Dorje is all about.  I will gradually think about this. 

Sangye Peldrup was a student of Mikyo Dorje who wrote a commentary on the Excellent Deeds, he does not explain the words, instead he explains the meaning of the text. According to his outline in his text, we are currently speaking about the path of the greater individual, and the third sub-topic of ‘training in the precepts of the two types of bodhicitta’. Within that topic, there are seven sub-topics, We are now speaking about how the fifth, how he acted in fruitful and fruitless situations. This has two sub-topics, and we are speaking about the second, How he gave up what was fruitless [unbeneficial]:

Verse 31 of Excellent Deeds – How he gave up what is fruitless

Yesterday, I was speaking about how he accomplished beneficial activities and thought about the needs of teachings and beings. So he built monasteries and statues, and published texts and gathered sangha. The second is how he gave up what is not beneficial.

What this means, is when you look at it from the outside. It might seem like someone is benefiting others, like building a temple or monastery, statues, stupas and so on. It might seem like you are gathering sangha, but in actuality it is not that beneficial for teachings and beings, instead it is harmful. This does happen. It looks good on the outside, and it seems like it should be Dharma, but in actuality it does not bring benefit to the teachings and beings, and is even harmful to the teachings and beings. If that is the case, then you should do as much as you can so you do not need to do those activities, or you should avoid such actions as much as possible.

So Mikyo Dorje instructs that usually, he did as much as he could to avoid such things. In the commentary by Sangye Peldrup it says, normally, many people, like the attendants in Mikyo Dorje’s entourage would say, such as their opinions, they would say: “Kundun, you really have great merit, and your activity is really vast and you should take this opportunity and do like the Sakya and Drikung did in Tibet in the past, when they had a great worldly and Dharma power, and then you should, whether establishing monasteries, or thinking about it in political terms, you should also gain some worldly power and influence and should be unrivalled in doing that. You should do this. There would not be much difficulty for us to do that, there would be no problem doing it. An ordinary person might want to do it but it would be a dream for them and they could not do it, but for someone like you, if you wanted to do it you could do it and it would not require much hardship on your part.  For that reason, the most important thing is we should not sever the connections to our previous sponsors, like the Chinese Emperor. If you have his support, then at that time, you naturally became influential in Tibet at that time, whether in Dharma or worldly terms, you become very powerful.”

In particular, there was the King of Jang, during the time of Mikyo Dorje, before that the King of Jang had not been Buddhist. He became Buddhist during the time of Mikyo Dorje, and it seems he invited Mikyo Dorje to go to Jang, and he went there,  and he said to him should go there again and again. Likewise, the King of Jang was very powerful in Jang and that area had gained power over many areas in Tibet, so Jang was very powerful in the region of Dokham, Eastern Tibet. So told Mikyo Dorje  that whatever worldly or monastic activities he wanted to do he could do them and he did not say this only once, he said this many times that he would do this. Both the King and his officials said many times, what should we do and what big monastery should we build? How big a temple should we build? Not just once but many times they asked this.   When they told Mikyo Dorje this, they said: “you should not let these offers just slip by. You should build an incredibly huge monastery somewhere in Jang or Eastern Tibet and we will help and give as much financial support as you need.” There were Kings, chiefs and powerful people who said this. So at the times there are such people, we need to use them, people thought and said.

Mikyo Dorje said to them, this is an internal discussion and Sangye Peldrup was an attendant of Mikyo Dorje, so he knew what was happening. So normally, the attendants would go and see Mikyo Dorje and say we need to do this and that, and we cannot let this opportunity go by and so on.  Then Mikyo Dorje replied, “What you say is true, I did go to Jang once, and the King asked me to stay there and he said he would build a large monastery. So if I went to Jang and, like you say, even had a huge monastery there, it would not be difficult to gather a big sangha there. However, having such a big monastic community gathered, is it really going to be beneficial for ourselves and others, maybe it would be difficult for it to be of benefit for even one person.  To gather so many monks and build a huge monastery then it is difficult for there to be even one person for whom that would be beneficial . These days, the other schools have large monasteries, and they have forces of people, and the young monks look up to the older monks and they would see all these older monks in the monasteries and people think it looks good and is impressive.  However, is it going to be beneficial for ourselves and others, how would it be so for even one person? To gather so many monks and build a huge monastery then it is difficult for there to be even one person for whom that would be beneficial . What the other schools they have large monasteries, and they have forces of people, and the young monks look up to the older monks and they would see all these older monks in the monasteries and people think it looks good and is impressive. There are a lot of people like that in other lineages but if we gathered many people, we would develop an opposition or conflict with those lineages and our connection to people and then lose them, or sometimes they would make mistakes and there would be all these kinds of things and there is a danger it would damage the teachings of the Buddha and ruin ourselves and others. These situations would naturally occur. So, if we did that, would it really actually work out well?  We are saying the name that are we spreading the teachings and benefiting beings, but actually we are doing as much as we can to destroy the teachings and we are accomplishing non-virtue, that is the situation, right? In actuality, doing that sort of work is using the Dharma as an excuse, in actuality you are only doing worldly things and accomplishing worldly things. I cannot do that sort of work.” Mikyo Dorje would say things like that.

Monasteries becoming like fortresses that encourage jealousy, competition and sectarianism
The Potala Palace is a dzong fortress in Lhasa, Tibet. It was the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas from 1649 to 1959, has been a museum since then, and a World Heritage Site since 1994.

In Kongpo, as I said before, at that time, it was mainly a Karma Kamtsang area so there were mostly followers in that area of Karma Kamtsang and they would offer their children, in the past there was an order, if you have three sons you had to offer one to be a monk, so they would take a child from each of the families and not only demand a child,  they would choose the better ones who were smarter and had clearer intelligence. People would send them to the monasteries, so they would say give us your children. So Mikyo Dorje said “I am not gathering people this way through deceit like that.”

In brief, if we talk about monasteries, Mikyo Dorje saw little point in having a big monastery as it does not have much benefit at all. Other people get very jealous about it, and then it creates conflict and the monasteries become like fortresses. They are like monastic fortresses that help or harm others. As I said, they are places that look good on the outside, but they aren’t really places where anyone stays in the mountain retreat places and actually do meditation retreat, and accomplish the essence. Or there are pleasant retreat centres that are just fooling others. They say they are staying in the retreat centre, and people think ‘Oh they must be really practising the Dharma and working hard.” But in actuality, they are just staying in a retreat centre and enjoying themselves having nice food and filling your stomach and drinking as much as tea as they can. They don’t have to do much there, they stay and enjoy yourself. So, these are just retreat centres that  fool and deceive other people. We talk about monasteries that are filled with attachments and aversions and many of these monastic colleges there are many different positions, like the earlier and later ones. Then they say this is our tradition, and this is the other tradition, and attachment and aversion increases sectarianism, and these are just monasteries of attachment and aversion, and just help you fill your stomachs.

In older times, meditation tents – no door and no place to lie down
This is an example of a tent the 17th Karmapa described but it is not from Tibet

Meditation camps, the Chogdra in Tibetan at the time of the 7th and 8th Karmapa, there were many meditation centres and most of them you stayed in one-person tents (chogphu). Small tent that one person fits in (Karmapa shows with his hands), a tent with a pointed top [a teepee]. Only one person will fit in it and they don’t listen to others and stay alone. When they do their sessions or sleeping alone at night, they would just stay in one tent.

So people stayed in these tents, where they spent three years, there was not even a place to lie their head down on a pillow, there was not even a place for it. There was not enough room to lie down, so they would meditate. Like we do in the retreat centres these days, one has to sit cross-legged the whole time. Even when you are sleeping you would have to sit up, and you were not allowed to loosen your belt because there was no reason to, there is no place to lie down and you spend your time doing sessions, this is what we call the meditation camp, like an encampment.

So when we talk about a ‘self-interested’ meditation camp, this is where you just fill your stomach and just stay alone, that is the type of meditation. Temples and offerings are gathered through wrong livelihood, it is like you are always just consuming the offerings given to the three jewels. There is no other point. If you look at them, they use propagating the teachings  as the excuse, but in actuality what they are doing is pointless activities and things that distract you.   If you look at is on the outside, it seems like it should be virtuous, but in actuality for years and months. At first the virtue seems to be virtuous but is something they cannot sustain over months and years, then they just end up doing unvirtuous actions so there is no point to doing any of these. They should throw them away like hay.

They should not stay near people who are acting for selfish self-interest in this lifetime for their own food and clothing this lifetime. They should follow the example of the great forefathers and stay in unpopulated places in practising as hard as they can for their entire lifetime.

8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje’s retreat places in Tibet – near Tsurphu and other unpopulated areas
Retreat cave of previous Karmapas, above Tsurphu Monastery

For Mikyo Dorje himself, he would stay in Tsurphu, which is short for Tsurgiphu. Tshur means the valley/place and phu means the upper part of the valley, the back parts. There are many different retreat places not just in the monastery but in the mountains there are a lot of retreat sites, at the back of there is a place called Khung. Mikyo Dorje stayed there doing meditation practice, there are several texts that he wrote while he was staying in Tsurgi Khung.

When I was little, we would go to this spot, it was called Mikyo Dorje’s Khung, it was a really lovely place. It was a like a few small stone retreat huts that were left there. When you looked at them, it was like a place you could practice like they did in the olden days.  Like Mikyo Dorje would go to a very isolated place and there was no door in these huts and he would stay there and do practice. Like that, staying in unpopulated valleys and remote places. This is what Mikyo Dorje liked doing, not just in Tsurphu but all over Tsang, there are places in Yatro and Gangtro, there are many great places to practice the Dharma, and he would go there. These are places where people could practice unobtrusively, where people could not see what they were doing, and get jealous or envious of what they are doing. In an unobtrusive way as possible being able to practice there. That is the most important thing.  He said this repeatedly.

Generally, he had a lot of interest in supporting monasteries and retreat centres that benefited the teachings and he said he do not have to make some big new ones. He thought, “we don’t need to make a big monastery that has a lot of commotion about it” he did not like doing that at all. For example, usually when he went to Kham in eastern Tibet, he would get a lot of offerings so he would not go there and go to places where there were not a lot of sponsors or where there were not many Kagyupas. He would go to these isolated places and without any really knowing what he was doing he would spend his time doing practice. This is what he really enjoyed and liked best. 

Likewise, what they often say, the places in Nyethang,  Jormo Gangkhang, Namso and so on, at this time, these were under Mongolian control. “If there were no Mongolians it would be really nice to go there and practice.” This is what Mikyo Dorje said.

Likewise, he also wanted to go to retreat sites of Milarepa such as Lachi and Chowa,  Lato Gyetrishiri, is another well know retreat cave of Milarepa. Likewise there are also, Milarepa’s six fortresses and he wanted to stay there in these distant places, and he wanted to stay there practising. However, if he had gone so far away, there would be a lot of monks and students who would come from Dokham (Eastern) Tibet to see the Karmapa and come from such a long distance. So he wanted to go to these places he thought, “but if I go, everyone who came from Kham would have a difficult time”, so he didn’t go. In any case, no matter when or where, he didn’t like a lot of activity or busyness, he liked isolation and solitude. 

Wearing the armour of bodhicitta – The greatest solitude is having the mind of awakening and no  self-interest
Tibetan armour/cavalry

Likewise, when he heard about the great masters of the past,  and how they would go to the isolated places and practice. When he spoke about this, he had a great feeling for it. It is clear he had a great feeling for that kind of activity. Mikyo Dorje’s taking such delight in solitude, Sangye Peldrup himself thought was primarily a way to get others to go to isolated places and practice Dharma. It is a way of advising and giving directions to people, this is probably why he liked the solitude. It is not like he absolutely had to, someone like Mikyo Dorje does not really need to stay in solitude though. The reason for this is as it says in this passage in the Do Dupa:

“Those who stay in forests or in towns, if we have interest in the two vehicles but are dedicated towards greater enlightenment. this is the solitude of engaging in benefiting beings.”

So what this says is, if you don’t have any self-interest, but you also have the mind of awakening of the Mahayana and you are wearing that armour of it, then whether one is staying in towns or crowds or forests or wherever, that is the greatest solitude of the bodhisattva. The great bodhisattvas don’t need to go to retreat/remote places, solitude for means being free of, and separated from self-interest. It does not mean being free of any distractions and diversions, it means being free of the self-interest and also in addition you have the relative bodhicitta. This must not be undiminished. If you have this, then no matter where you stay, no matter how many people are around you, that kind of bodhicitta is staying in the greatest solitude. Someone who is not isolated from thoughts of self-interest and they don’t have such good practice of relative bodhicitta, they could spend millions of years without anyone else at all, staying in completely unpopulated areas. But in terms of bodhicitta they do not have the greatest solitude.

Now this is for the Bodhisattvas. It is different for the Shravakas, for them there is no question of being isolated from self-interest. For a Bodhisattva one needs to be free of self-interest. In addition to that, one must have the undiminished, relative bodhicitta. if we think about it in this way, a great being like Mikyo Dorje, lacked any self-interest, he was continually practising bodhicitta. So for someone like him, from his own personal perspective, if he was staying in a remote place where there are no people, or whether staying a monk in a monastery, I do not think there was much difference.

However, ordinary people who practice and stay in isolated places where they are isolated from any diversions and there aren’t any of the thorns of Dhyana, not anything that harms the Samadhi meditation. When there aren’t any things that create problems for meditation. If they go to a place like that, then it is beneficial. For that reason, I think Mikyo Dorje acted as if he was  really delighted about the isolated places.

In any case, the main point here is that someone like Mikyo Dorje, did not go through a lot of hardship to establish big monasteries and practice centres, but even he did this, there would be the danger that someone with power and authority would steal and take the power the fields and land that belong to the sangha. Then there would be disputes about the sponsors and which one was their monastery sponsor and so on.  This happens, right? 

This is in the treasury of Abhidharma, I believe. “Householders have difficulty training in the view, and monastics have difficulty training in livelihood”.  So, it is difficult for householders to train in the view and to have belief in the three jewels. When it comes to a having a little bit of flowers and incense and they go to make supplications to worldly gods, and they wonder what might happen to the three jewels and they go immediately after a worldly deity, or some idol of the deity and offer some flowers or milk or they offer incense. 

For monastics, it is difficult to train in livelihood. It is difficult for them to have the right livelihood without being tainted with wrong livelihood. In the past, the livelihood of monastics depending entirely on others. They had to go on alms rounds, if no one gave them anything, they wouldn’t have anything, and it  would be difficult.

So for monastics, since their livelihood depended on these sponsors, they would often have to do things to placate and mollify, and sometimes flatter their sponsors and so on. There is a great danger this would happen. The reason for this is that if your livelihood depends on them, then even  if you don’t want to, you feel you have to do things to mollify and pacify them. This is what naturally happens. That is why it is difficult to train in the livelihood of the monastics.

So, Mikyo Dorje the way he thought about things, was that if people say they are building these places to study and practice the Buddha’s teachings, but if they are not careful, then they can just cause harm to others and does not bring any real benefit. So for that reason, he would go to isolated places, where there is nothing more to support you for a few months. And it would be very modest, and there would not be any nice or beautiful things.  So, he had a lot of interest in staying in places like that.  That is enough for today.

Next teachings – 5th Zhamarpa recognition and other topics
5th Zhamarpa Rinpoche, Konchog Yenlag

We have three more sessions. As I said before, there are many things to say about Mikyo Dorje, but if I had to say everything it would take another whole year, so I don’t see any reason to mention everything. As I said the other day, for example, the 5th Zhamarpa Rinpoche, Konchog Yenlag was Mikyo Dorje’s main disciple and when he was being recognised, there were some complications, or difficulties. There were some situations that most of us do not know about, I did not know about it before either.  So I thought, in the past, during the first year of our spring teachings when we began them, I was looking through the different texts and saw there is an old  manuscript I found in which there was some discussion about the difficulties that happened with the recognition of 5th Zhamarpa Rinpoche. It is not complete. The first few pages are missing. So, when we look at it, I did not think I needed to look for this but I  just naturally got it.  So when I got it, I thought this is very important and put it in some place. Then later, when I looked for it, then I could not find it again. I have looked for it for two years and still have not found it.  I have no idea where it is. But it is a really important point. Still it makes no difference. Even if I cannot find it, I have found many other documents about it, so I can speak about things related to that, and other things I will speak about .

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