16. 5th Karmapa 1384 - 1415

chos rje de bzhin gshegs pa

„You who wear the crown of glorious, invincible yoga,

Lord Deshin Shegpa, I supplicate you.” – “Supplication to the Kagyü Gurus”



The Fifth Gyalwa Karmapa , Deshin Shegpa, was born in Nyangdam in the Kongpo region of South Tibet to tantric practitioners. His father’s name was Guru Rinchen, and his mother’s name was Lhamo Kyi. While awaiting the birth of their child, it is said that they heard mantras and the Sanskrit alphabet being recited in Lhamo Kyi’s womb. Their baby sat upright when it was born, wiped his face, recited the sacred mantra of ‘Phagpa Chenrezig, and proclaimed, “I am the Karmapa.” The parents brought their child to Tsawaphu in Kongpo, and the Lineage-holder, Khachö Wangpo, recognized the boy as the reincarnation of Rölpe Dorje, the Fourth Gyalwa Karmapa. When he was 11 or 12 years old, he was brought to Tsurphu Monastery and ordained at Chogde Düngang as the Fifth Gyalwa Karmapa. He received all the belongings he had in his last life as the Fourth Karmapa. He also received the full cycle of the Kagyü empowerments and teachings. Deshin Shegpa completed his traditional training with ease.


In the last life-story of the Fourth Karmapa, we read that in 1368 the Ming Dynasty replaced the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in Greater Asia and invited great Tibetan Lamas to the imperial court. In his work, Alexander Berzin wrote: “Tibetan Lamas who were later invited to the Ming court did not have the political status that those who had earlier attended the Mongol court had. Titles, such as ‘Tai-situ,’ that during the Sakya hegemony had carried with them political authority in Tibet, were now merely honorary and had no political significance. In fact, the Hongwu Emperor placed restrictions on Buddhist monks in China in order to limit their political power. Nevertheless, the Ming founder showed sincere interest in Buddhism. When the Empress died in 1382, he sent Buddhist monks to the courts of the various princes to recite Sutras on her behalf. When the Ming founder captured the Yuan capital at Daidu, he took as his wife the pregnant queen of the last Yuan emperor. Her son became the Yongle Emperor. He came to the imperial throne by overthrowing the Hongwu Emperor’s young grandson and successor.” The First Yongle Emperor had the imperial complex and palace at Nanjing near Beiing built that still stands today. During the life of the Fourth Karmapa, Emperor Yongle had a vision of the Karmapa as ‘Phagpa Chenrezig, the “Lord of Compassion.”


Berzin wrote: “ The Yongle Emperor was a great patron of both Chinese scholarship and Buddhism. Soon after assuming the throne in 1403, he commissioned the compilation of ‘ The Great Yongle Encyclopedia . ’ Completed in 1408, over 11,000 volumes encompassed all fields of learning. In 1403, the Yongle Emperor invited to his palace the Pagmodru spiritual head, Dragpa-gyeltsen (1385 – 1432), who later became the fifth Pagmodru prime minister. He turned down the invitation, and so the emperor invited the Fifth Karmapa. When the young Karmapa arrived in 1407, he was received with the highest honors and welcomed by thousands of people .” Ken Holmes wrote: “The Fifth Karmapa saved Tibet from bloody war on several occasions by dissuading the emperor from imposing a single religious system there and by pointing out the value of alternative systems, suited to different mentalities. The emperor himself soon became an accomplished Bodhisattva.”


Tenzin Namgyal (general secretary of His Holiness the Sixteen and, until his death in 2005, of the Seventeenth Karmapa) narrated the history of the outer and inner Black Hat (available to readers of this website in the essay “ The First Gyalwa Karmapa”): “The Fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa, was invited to China. The emperor of the dynasty during those times was an emanation of Bodhisattva Manjushri, so he had very pure karma. He saw the crown on the Karmapa’s head and said to him, ‘You are wearing a wonderful and excellent crown. If it were possible to have people see it, if I could have one made that looks the same, you can wear it so that others can see it. Would that bring great benefit to beings?’ Karmapa Deshin Shegpa replied, ‘It is all right for you to make one. It will be of great benefit to beings.’” Tenzin Namgyal added: “So the emperor had a replica of the crown made, which is the outer crown that the Karmapa puts on during a grand ceremony for people to see - they see the outer crown, which is a replica of the inner wisdom crown. That was a description of the origin of the inner and outer Black Crown, which is a manifestation of wisdom and is always inseparably present with all Karmapas. This was the beginning of the Vajra Crown (or Black Crown) Ceremony.” Mongolian history records that the first Black Crown was a gift of Mongke Khan to the Second Karmapa, nevertheless, Emperor Yongle presented the outer Yajra Crown to the Fifth Gyalwa Karmapa, gave him the highest-ranking title, “Tabao Fawang,” “Great Precious Dharma King,” and honored him with an own golden seal.

The Official Website of His Holiness Karmapa states that Chinese records say that, in response to the devotion that Emperor Yongle had for his Guru, the Karmapa “manifested a hundred days of miracles,” i.e., for three years, for instance, lighting the clouds with iridescent colors and making flowers fall from the sky. Emperor Yongle had these miraculous events recorded for posterity in silk paintings with a multi-lingual commentary. For about 1000 years, this great silk scroll was one of the many treasures kept in one of Tibet’s most sacred temples, the Jokhang in Lhasa. In 1999, it was exhibited in a museum recently built in Lhasa.  


The Fifth Gyalwa Karmapa followed in the footsteps of two previous Karmapas and made a pilgrimage to the famous Wu-tai Shan Mountain that is sacred to Bodhisattva Manjushri. He visited the monasteries built by his predecessors and imparted teachings to the people of Mongolia and China. Deshin Shegpa returned to Tsurphu in 1410 to oversee its reconstruction after it was damaged by an earthquake. Then he spent three years in retreat. Reference is made in “Jamgon Kongtrul’s Retreat Manual” that he wrote “The Aspiration to Travel to the Blissful Pure Land” and that it is included in the Palpung edition of “The Book of Common Prayer of the Oral Instruction Lineage of the Karmapas.” The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center notes that “he is reputed to have been responsible for the creation of a manuscript bka' 'gyur.”


Realizing that his life was short, the Fifth Gyalwa Karmapa left indications of his future rebirth. From among his many known disciples – Zhönnupäl, Lodrö Rinchen, Chöpäl Yeshe, Lodrö Gyaltsen, Döndrub Öser, Shakya Zangpo, Maze Togden, Chökyi Gyaltsen (who was appointed by him to the position of Chief Instructor of Karma Gon, the Karmapa’s main monastery in the southern region of Central Tibet) - the next Lineage-holder of the Kagyü Golden Rosary was the Karmapa's closest disciple, Rinchenpäl.

Chöje Deshin Shegpa, the Fifth Glorious Karmapa, passed into Parinirvana at the age of 31 or 32. In the ashes of his cremated remains were found relics and naturally formed images of many Buddhas.


“Like birds landing on a tree top together and then dispersing, we are together for a very short time, so it makes sense to live in harmony, in unconditional friendship.”

-- Venerable Bokar Rinpoche



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.

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

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

Alexander Berzin, “Historic Interaction” (2006), & “The Hongwu Emperor and Founding of the Ming Dynasty” (2008), in: The Berzin Archives.


May the jewel of the teachings shine into every corner 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.)

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