The Miraculous Life of Karma Pakshi

Adele Tomlin

In Tibetan Buddhism, the tradition of recognising reincarnate masters (tulkus), from life to life, has been practiced for centuries. The majority of heads of the major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism have been appointed via this tulku system. Considered by many to be the first Tibetan tulku, Karma Pakshi, later termed the second Karmapa, was one of the most remarkable Tibetan Buddhist masters, historically, intellectually, and spiritually. Thus, it is with delight I reviewed this new book The Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi: Tibetan Mahāsiddha (Shambhala Publications, 2022) by Bodleian and British Library librarian Charles Manson.1  I recently wrote about a teaching the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, gave on Karma Pakshi and also translated some of the guru yoga sadhanas composed for Karma Pakshi by the 3rd and 15th Karmapas, and his connection to the practice of the deity Jināsagara: Karma Pakshi’s self-declared inseparability from the deity Jināsagara/Gyalwa Gyamtso is not explained in detail in Manson’s book, although there is reference to it in relation to his receiving the melody of the MANI mantra from the ḍākinī, which I wrote about here:

Karma Pakshi has great significance not only for the Karma Kagyu lineage and the Karmapas but for Tibetan Buddhism generally, and he is also a remarkable example of a great Tibetan Mahāsiddha (as it states on the title of the book). However, there has not been much published research on Karma Pakshi, beyond some work by Matthew Kapstein, who says on the back cover endorsement: "Karma Pakshi, tantric adept and wonderworker, visionary and emissary to the Mongol Khans, has fascinated and inspired generations of Tibetan Buddhists down to the present day. He remains, however, an enigmatic figure, whose writings and history remain poorly known. Charles E. Manson deserves our gratitude for introducing us to the life and work of an important and unusual master in this attractive, accessible volume."

The author of the book, Manson, was one of the few scholars to write about Karma Pakshi in a Bulletin of Tibetology article,2  Manson, Charles. 2009. “Introduction to the Life of Karma Pakshi (1204/6-1283).” Bulletin of Tibetology 45(1): 26-51.  in which he stated he would “pay particular attention to the more concrete aspects of his time alive in the human physical form that commonly was associated with the name Karma Pakshi, before presenting, analysing and assessing the spiritual aspects of his life.”  In short, first focusing on the real and putting aside the visionary and esoteric experiences, which he admitted is a large exclusion.”3  There is a short biography about Karma Pakshi in Treasury of Lives by Michelle Sorensen (2011). After reading Manson’s book, it is clear that there are some inaccuracies and omissions in it, which I have informed Sorensen about in an email.

In this new book, Manson has addressed that large exclusion, and he describes many of those visionary experiences. At almost 300 pages long, the book is detailed and weighty. It is no easy feat to do justice to the life story and legacy of such a remarkable and powerful person as the Second Karmapa with accuracy and detail, while at the same time making it accessible and entertaining for a non-scholarly audience. Yet Manson seems to have pulled this feat off (even though there are no images in it). The content is fascinating (with helpful footnotes for the more scholarly readers).4 Although a few of the textual sources cited lacked page references, it does not detract from the overall quality of the book as a whole.

In terms of Pakshi’s historical significance in Tibetan Buddhism, Manson explains: "Karma Pakshi was the first to self-identify as Karmapa (he used Karmāpa), and eventually Düsum Khyenpa was attributed retrospectively the epithet of First Karmapa. Thus, Karma Pakshi is often identified, somewhat loosely, as ‘the first reincarnate,’ an emanation of a holy being known as a “trülku” (often commonly rendered as ‘tulku’ from the Tibetan, or ‘living buddha’ in modern parlance)" (p. 31).

Moreover, centuries later, two Buddhist meditation masters, the First Mingyur Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, were inspired by Karma Pakshi to write meditation practices that are profoundly important to contemporary Tibetan Buddhist practitioners: respectively, the Karma Pakshi Guru Yoga and the Sādhana of Mahāmudrā.

Manson does not give any information about his own personal connection to the Karmapas in the book, yet he responded when asked that he first received the Karma Pakshi empowerment from the 16th Karmapa in 1974 and started looking at the history of Karma Pakshi in 1993. He began studying the subject more seriously around 2005, stating it had been a “long, old journey.”

A long journey, indeed, but well worth it. The book is dense and full of incredible accounts and textual references. I could hardly contain it within my mind, almost like a mental tremor and explosion of delights! It was as if Karma Pakshi himself, who speaks about making whole places “tremor” with his breath in his memoirs, made my mind tremor with the sheer magnificence and “weight” of the textual and spiritual material packed into the book.

Manson's book is divided into two main sections, Karma Pakshi's life and legacy in Part One and extracts of his writings in Part Two. In terms of his life story, he was a child prodigy then known as Chodzin, who at age six could read without being taught. By around nine or ten, he could read any of the Buddha’s teachings and just by reading a work once, he would understand and fully assimilate the material. He met and studied with an elder tantric yogi, Pomdragpa, followed by studies at the well-known Nyingma Kathog monastery. He then spent over 11 years in meditative retreat at an isolated hill near Batang (not that far from Kampo Nenang monastery, founded by Dusum Khyenpa, who was posthumously titled the First Karmapa). It was during that retreat that Pakshi started to gain a reputation as a noted yogin. He attracted students and had visions of deities.

The next part of Pakshi’s life is also extraordinary, not only for his extensive travels to and from Tibet and Mongolia, but also for his beneficial Buddhist influence on the Mongolian Emperor Mongke Khan and the people he ruled over.  After the Emperor passed away, Pakshi then miraculously (using his meditative powers) escaped death by torture and assassination several times after a ‘fierce edict’ was issued by Mongke Khan’s younger brother, Kubilai Khan. Eventually, Kubilai Khan was overwhelmed by Pakshi’s powers and allowed him to leave a forced exile and return to Tibet. Pakshi returned to Tsurpu and built a sixty-foot Shakyamuni Buddha statue, called the Great Ornament of the World. This statue was witnessed by the famed British Tibetologist Hugh E. Richardson in the late 1940s. It was destroyed in the 1960s Chinese Cultural Revolution.

At Tsurpu, Pakshi also met for the first time a renowned Tibetan yogi, Ogyenpa, to whom he transmitted the teachings from the Nāropa lineage and passed on a black hat to continue the lineage and the Jināsagara empowerment. In 1283, Pakshi passed away at the age of 79 at Tsurpu Monastery and spoke some verses before dying: “I have not even an atom of fear for death: / Due to being free of any basis for future transmigration and its process, / There will be no transmigration within the dharmakāya—aṃ!”

He requested that his body not be moved for seven days, and unusual signs and sounds appeared. After the cremation, various sacred relics were found in the ashes and on Pakshi’s heart, tongue, and eyes.

In the final chapter of the first half of the book, Manson details some of the legacies and lineages of Karma Pakshi – in particular, that of Jināsagara (Red Chenrezik) practice, the Bernagchen/Black-cloaked Mahākala, the now famous protector of Karma Kagyu, the instruction on the four kāyas (about which a lengthy 3-4 volume work was composed 250 years later by the 8th Karmapa), and the terma sadhanas of Mingyur Yongey Dorje and Chogyam Trungpa mentioned earlier.

The second half of the book contains several translated songs, poems, and essays by Karma Pakshi. It is clear that Pakshi was a very able poet and gur/song singer. There is a fascinating section on a text about the previous lives (preincarnations) of Pakshi, which was provided by the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Other translated writings include Pakshi's account of the building of the Great Ornament of the World and his deathbed song. There are also several texts on meditation, including his teaching on the four kāyas, which he taught in many places.

To end in the here and now, this important book on the past reminded me of the heartbreaking situation of the present incarnation of the ‘great man,’ the 17th Karmapa, who as a young man took the brave (and risky) decision to escape into exile in India from Tsurpu, Tibet in 2000. Thus, this book can be highly recommended not only as an inspiring and moving account of an important historical, intellectual, and spiritual figure in Tibetan Buddhist history, but also as a reminder of the perhaps undervalued ‘greatness’ of the present one in our midst.