7. 1st Karmapa 1110-1193

dpal due gsum mkhenpa

“In the future, you will be the Buddha named Drukpa Sengge,

In the present, you nurture all realms through many emanations.

Lord of Dharma, ruler of the teachings of the Practice Lineage,

Düsum Khyenpa, we supplicate at your feet .” -- Ven. Mikyö, “Supplication to the Karmapas”



Among the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyü Lineage is the meditation transmission lineage, the Practice Lineage. The four main schools are Kagyü, Nyingma, Sakya, and Gelug. The first historical Mahasiddha in the Kagyü Tradition was the Indian saint Shri Tilopa, who had received the transmission directly from Buddha Vajradhara. Shri Tilopa in turn gave what is also referred to as the Whispering Teachings to his foremost disciple Panchen Naropa (“whispering” referring to the oral transmission). The first Tibetan to receive the Mahamudra teachings from Mahasiddha Naropa was Lord Marpa. He brought them from India to Tibet, practiced diligently, and translated them into the Tibetan language. Marpa Lotsawa gathered around him a number of students; his main disciple was Milarepa. Having endured more than six years of hardships to purify the negative karma he had accumulated in his early life, Jetsün Milarepa spent many years meditating in isolation. He gained profound illumination and became famed as the greatest Tibetan poet and saint. He died at the age of 83 or 84, at which time he had already passed on the transmission to his heart-son Gampopa, who was the first Kagyüpa monk. Having realized the teachings perfectly, Lha-je Gampopa organized the first monastic system of the Practice Lineage at Mt. Gampodar in the district of Dagpo, South-East Tibet. He also formulated the teachings in practical texts such as the “The Jewel Ornament of Liberation,” in which he explained the gradual path to liberation. Four major and eight minor schools originated from his three main disciples. The major schools have all fused into the Karma Kagyü. The Gyalwa Karmapa is its supreme head and is revered by all teachers and disciples of Buddhism worldwide. The Lineage of the Karmapas is said to be self-announced, because each incarnation leaves a letter predicting his next birth. His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, now in his seventeenth incarnation, is the embodiment of ‘Phagpa Chenrezig, the Lord of Compassion, and is the source of the blessings of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.



The First Gyalwa Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa, was born at Treschöd, East Tibet. His father’s name was Dorje Gonpo and his mother’s name was Gangcham Mingdren. His parents gave him the name Gephel (dge-‘phel meaning “promoting goodness”). As a young boy, Gephel studied with his father and when be became older engaged in more studies and meditation practices with other Buddhist scholars of the region. He moved to Central Tibet when he was 20 and became a monk. A few of his teachers were Chapa Chökyi Sengge and Patsab Lotsawa Nyima Dragpa (the great Madhyamaka philosopher, translator, and founder of the debate system in Tibet), furthermore Yönten Drag, Sherab Dorje, Mal Dulzin, Sönam Rinchen, and Changchub Drag are also listed as his teachers. At that time, Düsum Khyenpa became known by the name Päl Chökyi Dragpa (dpäl-chös-kyi-grags-pa meaning “the illustrious friend of the Dharma”). When he was 30 years old, he went to Daglha Gampo Monastery in Kham, East Tibet, and took up his studies and practice under his Root Guru Gampopa.


In the foregoing life-story of Lha-je Gampopa in this website, we read about his closest disciples, the three men from Kham, and learned that one disciple’s nickname was U-ser because he was born with grey hair and that “he was to be His Holiness Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa.” This is the reason the First Karmapa is always depicted with grey hair. We also learned that Lha-je Gampopa called his three disciples back after the discipline master kicked them out of Daglha Gampo Monastery for having misbehaved. The three Khampas then sang a song which is recounted in “Lord Gampopa’s Song of Response to the Three Men of Kham” (in “The Rain of Wisdom”). The first verse is:


“In the Dharma palace of Akanishta dwells great Vajradhara.

So on this occasion let the vajra brothers make this supplication.

The Guru has said, ‘Come back,’ so we are going back up and up.

We are climbing the steps of the higher realms, going up and up.

We are stamping down the lower realms, going up and up.

Sho mo! What a joyful, good experience!”


We learned that Gampopa tested his three closest disciples when he asked each of them to make a hat. When he saw the neat little hat that U-ser had made, he prophesied, “The lineage that comes from you will be extremely good, pure, and strong.”


Lha-je Gampopa first trained Düsum Khyenpa in the Kadam Tradition that emphasizes mind training and discipline. He taught him the philosophical tenets expounded in the Sutras and instructed him to engage in the preliminary practices of Mahamudra. Düsum Khyenpa spent four years meditating tranquillity and insight and, having received the empowerments and practice instructions, stayed in retreat twelve years in all. It is recorded that he mastered the meditation instructions that came from Mahasiddha Naropa in nine days and acquired supernormal powers that enabled him to miraculously visit sacred Buddhist sites in India and Uddiyana, the pure land of Padmasambhava. While there, the Dakinis imparted further instructions to him.


At the age of 44, Düsum Khyenpa resumed his life outside meditation enclosures and didn’t leave Tibet again. On hearing that his teacher had passed into Paranirvana, he returned to East Tibet and paid homage to the sacred remains and relics that Lha-je Gampopa manifested and that were enshrined at Daglha Gampo Monastery. In a vision, Düsum Khyenpa saw that he should go to the area of Gampo Kangra, where he meditated Mahamudra intensively for six years. As a result, when he was 50 years old, he attained complete and perfect enlightenment. To commemorate this memorable moment in history, the Dakinis crowned him with the Black Hat as the Gyalwa Karmapa. Karmapa means “the One Who Embodies All the Activities of the Buddhas.” The Black Crown can only be perceived by worthiest devotees and sincerest practitioners, but a replica was made that could be seen by everyone when His Holiness performed the Black Hat Ceremony. Perhaps referring to the replica, the Himalayan Art Resources wrote: “According to the history of the Karma Kagyü tradition, the fifth Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa was presented a gift of a black hat by the Chinese emperor Yungle. However, according to Mongolian history, the first black hat was a gift of Mongke Khan to the 2 nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi. This hat has become the principal identifying characteristic and iconographic attribute in the depictions of the Karmapas.”


Tenzin Namgyal (Thrangu Rinpoche’s brother-in-law, who was also the personal secretary of both His Holiness the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Karmapa until 2005) narrated the history of the Black Hat and said: “One of the main activities of the Karmapa is to wear the Black Crown in order to benefit many beings. I will give a brief history of the Black Crown. Many eons ago, during the time of the Buddha called Drimekyi Gyalpo, there was a king called Yulpo Kyong (‘Protector of the Surrounding Land’). The king had a younger son called Chökyi Lodrö (‘Wisdom of Dharma’). Chökyi Lodrö went into the mountains and meditated vipassana (‘insight meditation’). He remained in meditative absorption for hundreds of thousands of years and became known as Rishi Gompa-kye (‘Sage Who Gave Rise to Realization’). The Dakinis had great faith in him and assembled before him; each Dakini pulled a strand of hair from her head and offered it to him. He accepted their present and made a crown out of their hair. They all had black hair, so the crown became known as ‘The Black Crown.’ It is a manifestation of self-arisen wisdom, because all Dakinis who offered their hair were wisdom Dakinis; therefore this crown is a manifestation of ultimate wisdom. They crowned the Sage and Saint with this very crown of empowerment.” Tenzin Namgyal spoke about the many next incarnations of Rishi Gompa-kye and told us that in a later life he became the great Indian Brahmin Saraha and was reborn in Tibet as Düsum Khyenpa. He said: “The Black Crown was worn throughout all the lifetimes of the Karmapas; it was ever-present as the spontaneous manifestation of ultimate wisdom and was not something that could be obtained. The Karmapas have had the Black Crown from the First Karmapa and through all successive lives.” At this time he became known by the name Düsum Khyenpa, “Knower of the Three Times.” All Karmapas know the three times (the past, present, and future), but this name was only given to the First Karmapa


When he was 55 years old, Düsum Khyenpa founded the monastery Khampo Nyenang Gon. It is recorded that he meditated for twenty years in the mountains of Lithang, East Tibet, and during this time founded Pangphu Monastery when he was 60. He gave many blessings and teachings, left thirteen footprints in the rocks, and performed other miracles while there. When he was 75, he founded Karma Lhateng Gompa. When he was 76, he founded Karma Gon, the major monastic seat of the Karmapas in East Tibet. At the age of 80, he established the main seat of the Karmapas at Tsurphu in the Tolung Valley, Central Tibet, and therefore Düsum Khyenpa is also known by the name Lama Tsurphu-la. His fame spread far and wide and even the abbot of the Bodhgaya Temple in India sent a conch shell as an offering to him.


Gyalwa Düsum Khyenpa had many disciples. His heart-son was Drogon Rechen. The official site of His Holiness the Karmapa wrote: “Among his other main disciples were Tak-lungpa, founder of the Tak-lung Kagyü, Tsangpa Gyare, founder of the Drukpa Kagyü, and Lama Kadampa Deshek, founder of the Katok Nyingma lineage.”


Düsum Khyenpa entered Paranirvana at the age of 84. In his life-story presented by Simhanada we learn that “His bones created spontaneously arisen images of enlightened beings and his heart was found unburned after the cremation. He passed the glorious Lineage and prediction concerning his next incarnation to his main disciple Drogon Rechen. The Gyalwa Karmapa predicted that his reincarnation would appear in the region near the Drichu River. After the Karmapa’s passing, the caretaker of Tsurphu, named Gangarwa, disregarded the instructions and prediction. Therefore, it was not until Pomdragpa (who was a student of Drogon Rechen and a teacher of the Second Karmapa) that these instructions were recognized to be true, fully revealing that Karma Pakshi, the 2 nd Gyalwa Karmapa, was in fact none other than Düsum Khyenpa reborn.” In contrast, the Himalayan Art Resources wrote: “Rangjung Dorje (3 rd) recognized himself as the rebirth of Dusum Kyenpa and posthumously named Dusum Kyenpa and Karma Pakshi as the 1 st and 2 nd Karmapas.”


Chöje Lama Namse Rinpoche taught: “Buddha Shakyamuni was the Fourth Manifestation in the succession of a thousand Buddhas. Astrological texts prophecy that the Glorious Karmapa will manifest as the Sixth Buddha of our world cycle.” His name will be Drukpa Sengge - “The Lion’s Roar.”




“Supplication to the Karmapas. The Short Supplication to the Successive Manifestations of the Lord of Victorious Ones.” The root text was composed by Ven. Mikyö and was then supplemented during the time of each successive master. Translated under the guidance of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche & Acharya Sherab Gyaltsen Negi by Tyler Dewar of the Nitartha Translation Network in 2002, in: Kagyu Office of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, “Kagyu Lineage histories” (2008).

“The Golden Rosary,” in: Official Website of H.H. the 17 th Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje (2008).

Simhanada, “Lineages – The First Karmapa” (2008).

Chöje Namse Rinpoche, “Confidence and Devotion,” presented at Karma Theksum Tashi Choling in Hamburg in 2007, in: Teachings in English, Karma Lekshey Ling Institute, Nepal, 2007. See also Chöje Namse Rinpoche, “Our Lineage,” in: Karma Sönam Dargye Ling, the Canadian Centre of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Toronto (2008).

Tenzin Namgyal, “A Few Accounts about the Wondrous Activities of His Holiness the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa,” narrated at Thrangu Tashi Chöling in Boudnath, Nepal, in 1989, transl. & ed. by Peter Roberts, in: Homepage of Thrangu Rinpoche (2007/08).

“The Rain of Wisdom. The Vajra Songs of the Kagyü Gurus,” transl. under the direction of Chögyam Trungpa by the Nalanda Translation Com., Boston & London, 1980.

Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (tbrc), “Biographical Data: The Karmapas,” N.Y. (2008).

Himalayan Art Resources, The Karmapas, N.Y. (2008).



The Short Prayer for His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje:


“Naturally arising Dharmakaya, unchanging and ever-present,

Karmapa, you appear as the form kayas’ magical illusions.

May your three secret vajras remain stable in the realms

and your infinite, spontaneous activity blaze in glory.”



(Compiled & written for English speaking students & visitors of Karma Lekshey Ling Institute in Nepal, who hold copyrights, by gh, aware of inconsistencies in the quotations that may not be altered, solely responsible for all inadequacies, July 2008.)

© Karma Lekshey Ling Shedra, Post Box No.8435, Swoyambhu, Kathmandu, Nepal