History of the Karmapas: Recognizing a Tulku

The following article is from the Winter, 2012 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


Most of us know that tulkus are recognized as reincarnations of specific masters, but we may not know the beginnings of .he tulku system. Here's the story, along with a bit of the fascinating history of the first recognized tulku and his magical dealings with the famed Kubilai Khan. Adapted from The History of the Karmapas by Lama Kunsang; Lama Pemo, and Marie Aubele.

Tulkus: The First Karmapa

Dusum Khyenpa [the first Karmapa] made numerous predictions concerning his successors.

Before his death, he wrote a letter wherein he gave instructions for the discovery of his future incarnation, or tulku. Writing such a letter, which was sometimes transmitted orally to a trusted disciple, then became one of the methods for recognizing the Karmapas. Later it would frequently happen that even masters of other lineages called on the Karmapa to discover tulkus.

For example, the fifteenth Karmapa, who lived at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, recognized around one thousand tulkus during his life.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a contemporary master, recounts the following:

Although he had unimpeded clairvoyance, the [fifteenth] Karmapa explained that he did not always have complete control over it. On the one hand, sometimes he would know when a lama was going to die and where he would be reborn without anyone having first requesting this information. Then, when the disciples responsible for finding the tulku would come to inquire about the lama, he would already have written down the details of the tulku's death and rebirth.

"In other cases, he could only see the circumstances of rebirth when a special request was made and certain auspicious circumstances were created through any of a number of practices. And in a few cases, he couldn't see anything, even when people requested his help. He would try, but the crucial facts would be 'shrouded in mist.' This, he said, was a sign of some problem between the dead lama and his disciples. For instance, if there had been fighting and disharmony among the lama's following, the whereabouts of his next incarnation would be vague and shrouded in haze.

'"The worst obstacle for clearly recognizing tulkus,' he explained, 'is disharmony between the guru and his disciples. In such cases, nothing can be done, and the circumstances of the next rebirth will remain unforeseeable.'"

Three months before the passing of the first Karmapa, a number of unusual rainbows occurred, and mild earthquakes hit the area around Tsurphu, causing the population to say that the dakinis were showing themselves by playing the drum. The first day of the year of the Water Ox (1193), Dusum Khyenpa transmitted the Last Testament to his principal disciple, Drogon Rechen, who would become the main holder of the teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage. He also entrusted his texts and reliquaries to him. Two days later, at dawn, Dusum Khyenpa gave a final teaching to his closest disciples. He then sat in a meditation posture, focused on the sky, and entered meditative absorption. At noon, after his breathing had stopped, he manifested the state of tukdam, the ultimate meditation at the moment of death.


The state of tukdam reveals the level of realization of the master. Although the vital functions no longer play their role, the body retains its suppleness, and the region of the heart stays warm; the head does not drop, and no typical odor of decomposition develops. On the contrary, it may happen that the followers smell a subtle perfume emanating from the body. Although the mind of the master has entered into the ultimate sphere of all phenomena, the dharmadhatu, it keeps a link with the body. This state of tukdam can last from many hours to many days.

After the cremation rite for the first Karmapa, his followers discovered his heart and tongue (representing awakened mind and speech) intact in the middle of the ritual pyre, as well as fragments of bone on which appeared Buddhist symbols, particularly sacred syllables. The relics were collected and placed in a stupa in Tsurphu Monastery.

Dealing with Kubilai Khan: The Second Karmapa

Karma Pakshi was born in Drilling, in eastern Tibet, in the Wood Rat year (1204), into a family descended from the famous Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen. His parents were vogis, and Karma Pakshi was their last-born child. Just before his conception, his mother dreamt of a sun composed of light emanating from her heart, with rays illuminating the entire world

His parents, convinced that their son possessed rare spiritual qualities, entrusted him to Pomdrakpa, to whom the previous Karmapa had given the Last Testament shortly before his death.

imagesPomdrakpa very quickly realized that his young student was, in his own words, "blessed by the dakinis." This conviction had already been strengthened by a vision in which Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa, as well as other Kagyu lineage lamas, surrounded the child's house.

When the child was eleven years old, Pomdrakpa officially recognized him as a tulku of the first Karmapa, ordained him as a novice, and gave him the title of Chokyi Lama, "Master of the Dharma." This period was a key moment in the history of the lineage, as it marked the beginning of the tulku recognition system. It was later applied, with some variation, by all the masters of other schools.

The Mongols had become the masters of the Sino-Tibetan borders when, in 1251, the grandson of the great Genghis Khan, Kubilai', then governor of the provinces of the west and greatly interested in the philosophy and wisdom of Buddhism, invited the Karmapa, now in his forties, to his residence. The lineage head's reputation had reached even his ears.images

Karma Pakshi was aware of the
great importance of the meeting
for the future relationship between
the two peoples. In 1254, despite
the risks involved, the Karmapa
accepted the invitation and was
received a few months later by
an important Mongol delegation
that had advanced to meet him. It
was customary to go out to meet
important personalities as a sign
of respect; the more prestigious
the person, the further away they
would be met. Thus, in 1255, the
Karmapa was ceremoniously led
to the Kubilai's residence.
Once at the court, Kubilai' gave
the Karmapa his complete attention
and showered him with
gifts. The Karmapa's reputation
as an accomplished master with
extraordinary powers greatly impressed
the Khan and his court,
and he ardently hoped that his
guest would display his qualities
before the Mongol religious
heads. The Karmapa agreed to
satisfy Kubilai's request, and his
prestige was further elevated.
Enamoured, the future emperor
wished to keep this great master
permanently near him, but Karma
Pakshi, refusing to become
involved in the intrigue plotted
at the court, declined the offer,
which gravely offended the Mongol
His meditations on Mahakala and Avalokiteshvara strengthened Karma Pakshi's resolve to leave the Khan and move to the Minyak kingdom in the northeast of Tibet.
The Karmapa's return journey was troubled by these events, and he sensed the imminent danger.

Kubilai Khan had not forgotten
the "affront" he thought himself
to have suffered some years
earlier. Influenced by instigators
in his court, he was convinced
that Karma Pakshi had plotted
against him. He therefore decided
to have the Karmapa assassinated
and sent troops in pursuit.
The soldiers succeeded in arresting
the Karmapa and quickly set
themselves to carrying out Kubilai's
orders. They desperately
tried many times to inflict the
worst tortures on him: burning
him at the stake, poisoning him,
throwing him off a cliff....Nothing
Once Kubilai' was informed of
these events, he decided to send
Karma Pakshi into exile in the desert,
hoping that he would eventually
die of privation in this savage
environment. However, not only
did the Karmapa withstand the
new ordeal, he even succeeded in drafting a number of religious
texts. Finally, Kubilai' understood
that he was dealing with an exceptional
master and begged forgiveness.
Moreover, he offered
him gold and asked him to stay at
his court. Karma Pakshi refused
the gold but agreed to stay with
Kubilai for some time and be-stowed new teachings upon him
to renew their bond.
When Karma Pakshi desired to
return to Tibet, this time Kubilai
acquiesced, giving the Tibetan
lineage head his freedom and assuring
him that he could spread
the Dharma everywhere without
fear. It was during this period that
Marco Polo lived at the Mongol
court of China. In his writings,
he makes reference to Tibetan
lamas capable of accomplishing
miracles and recounts festivities
in the great reception hall, where
the Great Khan presided at a table
floating many meters above the
ground with goblets that mysteriously
set themselves before the
host and his companions.

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