12. 3rd Karmapa 1284-1339

sems dpa' rang byung rdo rje

“Through your miraculous ability in commenting on the many Sutras and Tantras, you reveal the heart meaning to the diverse host of beings, vastly propagating the teachings of the great Siddhas. Rangjung Dorje, we supplicate at your feet.” -- Ven. Mikyö, “Supplication to the Karmapas”


The Third Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, was born in Tingri Lankhor, which is situated in the region of Tsang. His father’s name was Chöpäl, and his mother’s name was Jomo Gyang; they were both tantric practitioners of the Nyingma School. Sitting up straight when he was 3 years old, Rangjung Dorje announced that he was the Karmapa. Already imagining a society in which the cultivation of wisdom and compassion is the most important thing in life, he told his playmates that there are higher levels of happiness than worldly forms. At the age of 5, he met Khädrub Orgyenpa, who was awaiting him. Because of the signs that had appeared to him in a dream, Orgyenpa recognized his former Root Guru, Karma Pakshi, when he saw the boy. He gave Rangjung Dorje the personal belongings of the Second Gyalwa Karmapa, the full Kagyü empowerments and instructions, and enthroned him with the Black Vajra Crown as the Third Gyalwa Karmapa.


Rangjung Dorje grew up in Tsurphu Monastery, the main seat of all Karmapas in Central Tibet. He was ordained a lay follower when he was 18 years old. He took the full ordination vows after having completed a retreat on the slopes of Mt. Everest. Extremely keen on learning, he studied at the best college of the Kadam Tradition. The Kadam School, founded by one of the main figures of the eleventh century, Jowo Atisha, emphasised the study of Madhyamika philosophy together with pure conduct. In the essay on Lha-je Gampopa, we saw that, before imparting advanced instructions, Gampopa led his students through the gradual stages of the Kadam Mahayana Tradition. Rangjung Dorje easily mastered the instructions that the college offered and so, when he became discontent, he left, sought more profound instructions, and studied with the most excellent teachers of the different traditions. He learned and mastered nearly all Buddhist teachings that had been brought to Tibet from India.


While in retreat in his early 20s, at sunrise Rangjung Dorje had a vision of Vimalamitra, one of the greatest masters and scholars of Indian Buddhism in the ninth century, who went to Tibet where he taught and translated numerous Sanskrit texts and, together with Padmasambhava, became one of the principal forefathers of Dzogchen. Then Rangjung Dorje had a vision of Padmasambhava, one of the greatest masters in Tibetan history, who subjugated the evil forces that were hostile to the propagation of Buddhism in Tibet. In this vision, Rangjung Dorje experienced Vimalamitra and Padmasambhava dissolve into him and - in that moment - he realized all the teachings and transmissions of Dzogchen, the “Great Perfection.”


Dzogchen is the name for the highest teachings of the Nyingma School. There are two sections of Dzogchen, that of scriptures and that of teachings. The scriptures are contained in the Tantras and the teachings are mainly transmitted through a personal teacher who has received them from a qualified master and has realized them too. After having mastered the profound Mahamudra teachings of the Kagyü School and the high Dzogchen teachings of the Nyingma School, Rangjung Dorje united Mahamudra and Dzogchen. He then founded the Karma Nyingthik Lineage, Nyingthik meaning “Heart Essence.” Nyingthik is the name for the Dzogchen Tantras that were concealed in Bodhgaya and that were extracted and arranged into outer, inner, secret, and innermost secret sections by Shri Singha. The Nyingthik Tradition continued in Tibet through Shri Singha’s foremost disciples, Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra, and was passed on by Rangjung Dorje.


When he was 35 years old, Rangjung Dorje received the “Kalachakra Tantra” through visions. Shri Kalachakra is the ground-of-all causal continuum itself that manifests as the deity of the Non-Dual Tantra, the pinnacle of the Highest Yoga Tantra. Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye offered a synopsis and wrote: “The ground-of-all causal continuum is called ‘Shri Kalachakra (Wheel of Time),’ wherein ‘time’ (kala) refers to immutable bliss, and ‘wheel’ (chakra) the emptiness endowed with the supreme of all aspects. By virtue of being the inseparability of bliss and emptiness, Kalachakra is said to be ‘glorious’ (shri). That Kalachakra itself manifests as the attributes of the outer world, the inner vajra body, and the alternative circle of the mandala.” Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye explained the cosmology of the Kalachakra system: The world with its central Mt. Meru is supported at its base by the five elements in configuration of semi-spheres inserted one into the other. The syllables of the Kalachakra mantra symbolize the elements and also represent the way they first arose: Wind is the first element at the base of the world-system; the fire element develops from the friction of the wind arising from different directions and converging; the water element descends from thick clouds formed by the steam of heat; and the earth element develops as a result of the action of wind that churns the mass of water. Rangjung Dorje was a master of the innermost Kalachakra teachings. Thrangu Rinpoche explained: “He had the experience, realization, and clear knowledge of the movements within the body, of the nadis (‘the channels’), the vayus (‘the subtle winds’), and the bindus (‘the subtle essences’). He understood them very clearly as they are taught in the Tantras and composed the text, ‘ The Deep Inner Meaning - Zabmo-Nangdon. Here he described all the highest Tantras, the Anutaratantras, which are comprised of the Father, the Mother, and the Non-dual Tantras.”


T raditional Tibetan astrology originates within two distinct systems, that of the cycles of animals and elements, known as “elemental astrology,” and that from Kalachakra. Since Rangjung Dorje had fully realized the Kalachakra Tantra, he understood astrology and the movements of the sun, moon, and stars on the basis of his knowledge of the movements within his body. He composed astrological texts based upon the Kalachakra Tantra, in which he clearly explained the movements of the planets, solar system, lunar eclipses, etc. The revised system of astronomy and astrology that Rangjung Dorje introduced is the basis for the calculation of the Tibetan calendar and is known as “The Tsurphu Tradition of Astrology.” This line, found exclusively in the Karma Kagyü Tradition, is still used today. Furthermore, Rangjung Dorje studied and mastered medicine, which is interrelated with astrology and deals with the inner circle, i.e., the wheel of the Kalachakra mandala.


The most important treatises that Rangjung Dorje wrote and that our Kagyü masters teach worldwide are: “The Treatise Distinguishing Consciousness from Wisdomm,” which he wrote at Dechen Teng, the retreat center at Tsurphu Monastery,“The Teaching on the Tathagatagarbha - the Buddha Essence,”“The Profound Inner Meaning,” and “The Aspirational Prayer of Mahamudra.


His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Third tells us: “The indivisibility of emptiness and clarity is the true nature of one’s mind, clarity being the lucid quality of self-awareness. Every sentient being experiences brief moments of his or her true nature daily, but many individuals aren’t trained to notice. Why? Because they are overwhelmed by a pluralistic mode of apprehension, which the Third Gyalwa Karmapa described in ‘ The Mahamudra Prayer.’” A verse from “The Prayer”:


“Beings by nature have always been Buddhas,

yet not realizing this, they wander endlessly in samsara.

May we have unbearable compassion

for sentient beings whose suffering knows no bounds.”


Among his many disciples were Khädrup Dragpa Senge, Dolpopa, Yakde Panchen, and many others, and - in particular - the disciple who was to become the next Lineage-holder of the Kagyü Golden Rosary, Gyalwa Yungtonpa.


Alexander Berzin wrote that after Khublai Khan’s death, “Mongol power in China slowly declined due to corruption, poor financial management, and famine. The power of the Sakya family in Tibet declined as well, due to numerous lineage sons and the resulting schisms. Rangjung Dorje was thus ordered to the Mongol Yuan court in China in 1331 by Togh Temur, Emperor Yuan Wenzong. The Third Karmapa had gained great prominence at this time as a master scholar and practitioner and had been teaching extensively in the Uighur and Mongol regions. Togh Temur as well as his successor died while the Third Karmapa was en route. When the Karmapa finally arrived in Daidu in 1333, he officiated at the enthronement of Toghan Temur as Emperor Yuan Shundi.” Furthermore, “Through Karmapa’s creation of a sacred nectar to prolong longevity, the Emperor became the longest lived of all the Mongol rulers.” Ken Holmes wrote that Rangjung Dorje “returned to Samye especially to procure it.” Simhanada wrote that Toghan Temur “was a predecessor of Tai Situ Rinpoche.”


Two years later, Gyalwa Karmapa was again invited to China by the Mongol Emperor - in Berzin’s words, “this time in a more respectful tone.” He arrived in 1338, conferred the Kalachakra empowerment on Toghan Temur, and received the title Gushri, “State Preceptor.” Up until then, this title had been held only by Sakyapas. The Third Karmapa also founded a Karma Kagyü monastery in Daidu.


Rangjung Dorje passed into Parinirvana on the 14th day of the lunar month at Daidu. He was 55 or 56 years old. Due to his generous wisdom, his all-embracing love and compassion for sentient beings, and the promise he once made to always help those who aspire to dedicate their life to the pursuit of inner peace and to mature spiritually, his image appeared the next night, on the 15th, within the full moon and was seen by the people of Tibet and Mongolia.


The Third Gyalwa Karmapa left oral instructions behind to indicate the circumstances of his rebirth. He entrusted these instructions to his general secretary, Rinchenpäl. While in China and shortly before passing away, Rangjung Dorje told Rinchenpäl (who is often addressed with the Mongolian term of respect, Goshir): “Return to Tibet soon, to the province of Kongpo. You will meet me there. I myself will declare that I am the Karmapa and many auspicious signs will occur.” Just as the Third Gyalwa Karmapa had instructed, Goshir Rinchenpäl found his reincarnation in those very circumstances.


“In all our lifetimes, may we gain the supreme freedoms and resources and have faith, joyous diligence, and prajna. May we rely on excellent spiritual teachers and, having received the nectar of their instructions, may we practice accordingly and encounter no obstacles in doing so – May we always practice the genuine Dharma.” – Rangjung Dorje, A dedication verse in “The Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra”



Kagyu Office of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, “Kagyu Lineage histories” (2008).

Jamgn Kongtrul Lodrö Taye, “The Treasury of Knowledge. Book Six, Part Four: Systems of Buddhist Tantra,” transl. by Elio Guarisco & Ingrid McLeod, N.Y. & Colorado, 2005.

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Taye, “Myriad Worlds. Buddhist Cosmology in Abhidharma, Kalacakra, and Dzog-chen,” transl. & ed. by the International Transl. Com. founded by the V.V. Kalu Rinpoche, N.Y., 1995.

His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Third, Karma Lodrö Senge, “The True Nature of One’s Mind,” presented in Bern in 1991, in: Karma Lekshey Ling Institute, “Teachings in English,” Nepal, 2008.

H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Third, „Instructions on ‘The Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra’ by the Third Gyalwa Karmapa,” presented in Montreal in 1990, transl. by Karma Yeshe Gyamtso, in: KLLI, “Teachings in English,” Nepal, 2008.

Chöje Lama Phuntsok Rinpoche, “Instructions on ‘The Treatise that Differentiates Consciousness and Wisdom’ by the Third Gyalwa Karmapa,” in: KLLI, “Teachings by Lamas from Lekshey Ling Institute,” Nepal, 2008.

Thrangu Rinpoche, “Transcending Ego: ‘Distinguishing Consciousness from Wisdom’ by Rangjung Dorje, the Third Karmapa,” Namo Buddha Publ., Co., 2001.

Thrangu Rinpoche, “Instructions on ‘ A Treatise entitled: A Teaching on the Essence of the Tathagatas (The Tathagatagarbha)’ by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, according to ‘An Illumination of the Thoughts of Rangjung (Dorje): A Commentary to ‘The Treatise that Teaches the Buddha Nature’ by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye the Great,” presented in Oxford in 1990, transl. by Peter Roberts, in: KLLI, “Teachings in English,” Nepal, 2008.

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

RywikiTsadraOrg, “Glossary from ‘The Great Image,’” originally compiled by Ani Jinpa Palmo, Nepal (2008).

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

Ken Holmes, “Karmapa,” Scotland, 1995.

Alexander Berzin, “A Survey of Tibetan History: Historical, Cultural, & Comparative Studies – Lamas and Mongol Patrons,” in: The Berzin Archives (2008).


May the jewel of the teachings spread to all parts of the world and remain!


(Compiled & written for English speaking students & visitors of Karma Lekshey Ling Institute in Nepal by gh, solely responsible for all mistakes, August, 2008, copyright.)

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