History of the Karmapas

Book Reviews

Kaiyum reviews this fascinating book by Lama Kunsang, Lama Pemo and Marie Aubèle with the subtitle, The Odyssey of the Tibetan Masters with the Black Crown.

History of the Karmapas book coverComplete history
In the West, the lineage of the Dalai Lama is better known than this even older lineage. Yet this history, from the very beginning in the year 1110 with the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, up to the current, the seventeenth Karmapa, His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje (b. 1985), goes a long way to correct the seeming imbalance – for those interested in the history of Tibetan Buddhism.

Profound insights
The authors, all Westerners thoroughly steeped in Buddhism, are equally thorough in their documentation of the lives, works and teachings of these great masters. They provide, moreover, interesting insights into the history and culture of Tibet that will surely intrigue many readers. This is, above all, a fairly easy to read and extremely well written history book, with the clear, objective focus of dedicated academics.

Ancient tradition
As already hinted at, the Karmapas are the earliest of all the recognised incarnate lineages. According to tradition, they descend from the great Indian tantric master Tilopa through a chain that includes Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa – all of whom feature frequently in Osho’s discourses. The life of each Karmapa is recorded in increasing detail, as well as their ‘departure’ which they foresee with great accuracy. They leave behind a letter to their disciples describing the place and circumstances of their future rebirth (usually within 2-3 years). At a very young age, each successive incarnation appears able to recognise himself as the new Karmapa.

There are numerous stories of how, through the ages, the Karmapas mediated with encroaching powers, including the Mongols and the Chinese, as well as peacefully resolving friction among Tibetan factions. Equally clear is that although they all possessed extremely advanced esoteric knowledge, they seldom performed siddhis, the use of ‘magical’ powers. Nevertheless, here is an example of what in this case the twelfth Karmapa effected:

When the king of Kathmandu called upon Jangchub Dorje to put an end to a severe drought devastating the country, he conducted a specific ritual that quickly brought about the desired result: clouds came together and rain fell immediately. Similarly, he succeeded in stopping a terrible epidemic that decimated the population.

Another story is related of how the sixteenth Karmapa, visiting Hopi Indians in Arizona, created rain after Chief Ned reported that they hadn’t had rain in 73 days. The next day, the Eagle’s Cry newspaper carried the title: “A Tibetan Chief Brings Rain.”

But such stories are the exception, since most descriptions make it abundantly clear how dedicated the Karmapas are to living strictly by Buddha’s precepts. There is no talk of ‘enlightenment’, but much evidence of profound meditation, sincere application to extensive study and above all compassion ‘for all sentient beings’.

The reader who is less familiar with the world of Buddhism might at some point ‘tune out’ to the complex terminology, with tulkus, tertons, dzongchens, ringsels and many more such expressions that belong to this different world. Nevertheless, in the 300 or so pages of this well designed and attractive book the authors, with valuable additional supportive documentation, make determined efforts to support the teachings that are inherent to this colourful subject.

Review by Kaiyum, Osho News

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