14. 4th Karmapa 1340 - 1383

'dzam gling chos kyi grags pa

 „Samaya-holder of the unified Mandala of the devas, Lord Rölpe Dorje, I supplicate you.”

-- “Supplication to the Kagyü Gurus”


The Fourth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rölpe Dorje, was born at Nöd Ala-rong in the Kongpo Province of Central Tibet. His father’s name was Sönam Döndrub. It is said that while in expectation, his mother, Tsöndru Gyän, heard the sound of the mantra of the Lord of Compassion, ‘Phagpa Chenrezig, being sung in her womb. Sitting up straight when he was born, Rölpe Dorje continued reciting the mantra “OM MANI PADME HUNG.” At the age of 3, he announced that he was the Karmapa and never stopped manifesting the wondrous activities of the Karmapas by continuously working for the benefit of innumerable sentient beings. He could read books spontaneously and receive many profound teachings in his dreams.


In the previous life-story of Gyalwa Yuntönchenpo, we saw that at the age of 12, Rölpe Dorje met his Root Guru during his previous life, the Lineage-holder of the Kagyü Golden Rosary. Yungtönpa recognized the young boy as the reincarnation of his own Root Guru, the Third Gyalwa Karmapa. According to the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, Rölpe Dorje was brought to Drag Lhakang when he was 14, where he recognized the belongings of his predecessors. He was enthroned and received the entire transmissions and teachings of the Kagyü Oral Practice and Whispering Lineages. By the time he was 19, Rölpe Dorje had completed his studies under the guidance of Yuntönchenpo. He accepted the invitation forwarded to him by Toghan Te the Mur to visit him in his palace at Daidu. Toghan Temur was the last Emperor of Greater Mongolia during the rule of the Yuan Dynasty. Rölpe Dorje, the Fourth Gyalwa Karmapa, accepted the invitation, travelled extensively for three years, and during this time imparted teachings to many people and established many temples and monasteries.


Ken Holmes wrote: “On his return to Tibet, while in the Tsongkha region, Rölpe Dorje gave lay ordination to a very special child, whom he predicted to be of great importance to Buddhism in Tibet. This was Kunga Nyingpo - ‘Tsong Khapa’ - future founder of the Gelugpa school, famous for its Dalai Lamas.”


Alexander Berzin recounted that in 1368, the Chinese Ming Dynasty replaced the Mongol Yuan Dynasty that also ruled over the Tibetan provinces. The Ming founder, Emperor Hongwu, Ming Taizu, had been a Buddhist monk for a few years earlier in his life. In 1369, he sent a mission to Central Tibet, but it was turned back. The second mission arrived and affirmed the titles that renowned Tibetans were granted by the Yuan rulers. The emperor’s envoy invited great Lamas from different schools to the imperial court in Nanjing. Among them was the Fourth Karmapa, who turned down the invitation but sent a Lama in his place.


The Fourth Gyalwa Karmapa was fond of Indian literature and composed many wonderful songs of realization. After one of his students had a vision of a Buddha image over 300 feet tall, the Karmapa had a huge painting of the Buddha made. It is said that he traced the design of the Buddha's outline with the hoofprints of the horse that he was riding. The design was measured and traced on cloth, and five hundred artists worked more than a year to paint Lord Buddha, Maitreya, and Manjushri, the founders of Mahayana, on the thangka.


At the age of 43, His Holiness the Fourth Gyalwa Karmapa, also known as Dzamling Chökyi Dragpa, “World Renowned Friend of the Dharma,” passed into Parinirvana in East Tibet. From among his closest disciples - Lozang Dragpepäl, Rinchenpäl, Karma Kongchog Zhönnu, Tsurphu Kungangpa, Tsokarwa, Yeshepa, Chökyi Gyalpo, Özer Lama, Kunga Dorje - his foremost student, Khachö Wangpo, became the Lineage-holder.


Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye honoured the Great Kagyü Lineage-holders of the Golden Rosary in a short summary in “The Retreat Manual” that we wish to share with readers. He wrote: “The incomparable doctor from Dakpo was originally a follower of the Buddha’s Word as Instruction Lineage. Since this time, the essential basis of meditation (within the Oral Instruction Lineage) has been ‘The Stages of the Path of the Three Types of Individuals’ from the Buddha’s Word as Instruction Lineage. To give another example, the second Buddha, the venerable Rangjung Dorjay, was the main heir of the transmissions of the Six Branches of Application (from the Vajra Yoga Instruction Lineage), the Pacification of Suffering Instruction Lineage, the Severance Instruction Lineage and others. As a result, the continuity of the special tradition called the Severance Oral Instruction Lineage continues unbroken to the present day. The great Trungpa of Zurmang Monastery, Kunga Namgyal, furthered the advancement of the Pacification of Suffering Instruction Lineage, as did the all-knowing Chökyi Jungnay (the eighth Tai Situpa) for the Six Branches of Application of the Vajra Yoga Instruction Lineage. The fourth Karmapa, Dzamling Rolpay Dorjay, made the doctrines from the Shangpa Instruction Lineage the heart of his meditation and his teaching. Since this day, the series of omniscient Karmapas have consistently upheld and protected the Oral Instruction Lineage of Dakpo (Gampopa) and the Shangpa Instruction Lineage together. The Intensive Practice Lineage is itself a separate transmission of the great accomplished one, Orgyenpa, a member of the golden rosary (of lineage-holders) of our tradition.” Following these lines of sincere veneration and deepest devotion, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye wrote:


“How can ordinary persons like us, who can’t grasp even a portion of the spiritual path, manage to perpetuate the example of such lives of freedom?”



Kagyu Office of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, “The Golden Rosary” (2008).

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, “Jamgon Kongtrul’s Retreat Manual,” transl. & intr. by Ngawang Zangpo, Tsadra Foundation, N.Y. & Colorado, 1994, pages 28-29.

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

Ken Holmes, “Karmapa,” Scotland, 1995.

Alexander Berzin, “The Hongwu Emperor and Founding of the Ming Dynasty,” in: The Berzin Archives (2008).


May the brilliance of the three wisdoms spread!


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

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