Twin Cities KTC AND Hay river KTC Buddhist Meditation Centers

This is part of an ongoing series of teachings on the Kagyu forefathers. The teaching was given by Lama Tsultrim Yeshe on August 21, 2022. 

Content is taken from the book, First Karmapa: The Life and Teachings of Dusum Khyenpa. Additional details on the first Karmapa came from

This statue of Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa, was designed by the 17th Karmapa

Karmapa means “the one who carries out buddha-activity” or “the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas.” The Karmapas have incarnated in this form of nirmanakaya, or manifestation body, for seventeen lifetimes, and all have played an important role in preserving and promulgating the Buddhist teachings of Tibet. Throughout the centuries, the Karmapas have been central to the continuation of the Vajrayana lineage in general and the Kagyu lineage in particular. They have played a very important role in the preservation of the study and practice lineages of Buddhism. The arrival of a master who would be known as the Karmapa was prophesied by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and the great Indian tantric master, Guru Padmasambhava.

From the relative point of view, the Karmapa manifests as a tenth level (bhumi) Bodhisattva and an emanation of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig. Before establishment of the Karmapa lineage in Tibet, the Karmapas manifested in countless different emanations throughout the centuries. Some of the most prominent manifestations of the Karmapas are the Great Brahmin Saraha and Padmasambhava in India, as well as many other emanations in Tibet. Only one nirmanakaya form of successive incarnations appears at a time. The first within the Karmapa lineage, Dusum Khyenpa, established the very first reincarnation lineage in Tibet. He has manifested from the 11th century until the present day.

Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193) was born in Dreshö, a part of Dreho, Kham, (eastern Tibet) ringed by snow-covered mountains. His mother, Lhathok Zagang Jam, and father, Gompa Dorje Gönpogave, were relatively poor and humble but also very devout. His father, a particularly active lay practitioner, gave him the name, Gephel, which means virtue increases.   

True to his name, Gephel showed an early aptitude for spiritual practice over worldly success. His parents taught him the Dharma as an integral part of his upbringing. He studied with his father until his mid-teens, becoming a knowledgeable and seasoned practitioner.  An extensive version of Dusum Khyenpa’s biography was written by Mikyo Dorje, the Eighth Karmapa. That account indicates that Gephel (who didn’t get the name Dusum Khyenpa until later in his life), underwent great turmoil in his teenage years*. 

In an age-old scenario, no less painful because it is so common, a young woman Dusum Khyenpa courted chose another man over him. Dusum Khyenpa felt she was stolen away from him. His response was a jealous rage in which he sought the means to kill the rival suitor. Using the black arts that Milarepa also deployed, Dusum Khyenpa accomplish this goal and the rival died. 

Remembering his earlier instruction that the causes of suffering and happiness were created by his own mind, Dusum Khyenpa took monastic ordination at the age of 16, leaving a householder’s life behind once and for all. 

After receiving his monastic vows, Dusum Khyenpa had a vision the Buddha presented him with a black hat. He later fashioned a physical hat modeled on the one in his vision. This became the first of the black hats that are still associated with the Karmapa lineage. Dusum Khyenpa also was given his epithet “Karmapa,” or “Being of Enlightened Activity,” as a secret name at this time.

In Quest of Dharma

Only three years after his ordination, Dusum Khyenpa journeyed to central Tibet, where the preeminent sites for rigorous scholarly study and meditative practice were located. Dusum Khyenpa immersed himself in practice and study for the next nine years, beginning with the major Buddhist philosophical texts and later with the tantras

While in Tölung, in Central Tibet, Dusum Khyenpa read the most challenging Indian treatises with the finest teachers of the day. Dusum Khyenpa studied the principal texts of Asaṅga and other important philosophical works, gaining a firm grounding in the views of the two major streams of Mahāyāna philosophy: Cittamātra, also known as Yogacarya, and Madhyamaka.

His training in these texts complete, Dusum Khyenpa proceeded to the great Kadampa center of Phenyul. There he studied Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka philosophy. For a further six years, Dusum Khyenpa studied Kadampa texts under the Kadam master, Geshe Sharawa, and following that, in the general philosophy of the sutras. This training on the basis of all Buddhist traditions established a pattern for all future Kagyu followers by demonstrating the importance of establishing a correct basis of knowledge. This is true even when engaging in the most powerful of advanced Vajrayana practices. 

Dusum Khyenpa received further training in tantra, receiving the set of six yogic practices associated with the Kālacakra tantra, among others. During this period, Dusum Khyenpa also took his bhikṣu ordination. He applied himself thoroughly in the foundational training for monastics, the Vinaya, excelling to the point where he was asked to teach Vinaya to others. 

Meeting Gampopa, His Root Lama

At the age of 30, Dusum Khyenpa decided to search out the master who would show him the greatest kindness by leading him to the highest realization on the path—Lord Gampopa, also known as Dagpo Rinpoche. As Dusum Khyenpa was heading to Gampopa’s seat at Daglha Gampo, he encountered Gampopa’s nephew, Gomtsul (1116-1169), and took teachings from him.

Upon arrival in Daglha Gampo, Dusum Khyenpa was made to wait two months before Gampopa would receive him. Dusum Khyenpa came to Gampopa with a strong intellectual understanding of the Dharma. Nevertheless, when Gampopa finally agreed to receive him, he initially granted Dusum Khyenpa only lamrim or “gradual path” teachings, which had already formed part of the basic curriculum that Dusum Khyenpa had studied for years under Kadampa masters. Gampopa offered the eager Dusum Khyenpa no secret transmissions or special instructions, but only advised him to practice the lamrim, saying, “I practiced this. You should do so too.”

Dusum Khyenpa diligently followed Gampopa’s advice even though he wanted more advanced teachings. Later, after Gampopa granted him Vajrayana teachings, he entered a solitary retreat for nine months. He engaged with full intensity in the meditative practices Gampopa taught him, wearing only a single cotton cloth. He meditated with such exertion it is said that the perspiration never dried from his hands for the entire nine months.

Over the years, Gampopa guided Dusum Khyenpa with great skill, giving him instruction and then sending him off to practice in solitude. One part of the territory where he was in retreat is now India and, although tigers frequented the territory, Dusum Khyenpa remained steadfast in his resolve to follow Gampopa’s advice and persisted in his practice. 

Gaining Certainty

After training and meditating for several years in this way, Dusum Khyenpa went to see Gampopa to relate his experience and seek further instruction. Gampopa responded that he was disappointed and said Dusum Khyenpa needed to practice more. After six more months of practice, the future Karmapa had firm conviction in his own experience. 

Dusum Khyenpa is said to have told Gampopa: “There’s no way this is wrong. Even if it is wrong, this is how I’m going to meditate.” This time, Gampopa placed his hand upon Dusum Khyenpa’s head and told him, “Son, you have already severed the bonds to saṃsāra.”

While training primarily under Gampopa, Dusum Khyenpa also had the opportunity to meet Milarepa’s other disciple, Rechungpa (1085-1161), and to receive from him the full transmission of the Six Yogas of Nāropa as well as other instructions. Gampopa himself gave Dusum Khyenpa personal instructions on Mahāmudrā, as well as instructions on Vajrayoginī practice.

After he had done so, Gampopa advised Dusum Khyenpa to practice Mahāmudrā far to the east, in an area of Kham called Kampo Gangra. This would be of great benefit to beings, Gampopa told him.

Losing His Lama

In 1153, 14 years after Dusum Khyenpa met Gampopa, this lama who had cared for him so kindly passed away. Dusum Khyenpa learned of the loss when he met Gampopa’s nephew Gomtsul and a second disciple named Phagpa in Ölkha. Clinging to Gomtsul, Dusum Khyenpa made supplications and wept. As he did so, a vision of Gampopa appeared in the sky, clearly visible to all three of them. The astonishing apparition did much to assuage Dusum Khyenpa’s pain, and he is said to have commented, “The lama came to dispel my grief.”

After the passing of this great master had been ritually marked in a customary manner, Dusum Khyenpa recollected the advice his lama had given him to travel east to Kham and practice Mahāmudrā in the area of Kampo Gangra.

Return to Kham

Three decades after he had left, at the age of 50, Dusum Khyenpa completed the journey back to his native region of Kham. As Gampopa had instructed, he meditated on Mahāmudrā in the Kampo Gangra area. During this period, Dusum Khyenpa engaged in dream yoga practice as well as Mahāmudrā and attained a level of realization wherein he was able to dissolve the boundary between sleep and wakefulness and between meditation and his ordinary activities. 

While in Kham, Dusum Khyenpa swiftly began to attract disciples, and before long the number of monks in his community exceeded 1,000. In 1164, Dusum Khyenpa founded Kampo Nenang monastery, on a spot tucked in a valley among gentle peaks. There he established a retreat center and monastery. Dusum Khyenpa devoted the next two decades of his life to cultivating realization in the many students who came seeking his guidance. 

As his first major seat, Kampo Nenang was powerfully imbued with Dusum Khyenpa’s presence. To this day, the letter A** appears on a boulder at Kampo Nenang whenever a Karmapa has been reborn in the world. 

At Kampo Nenang, Dusum Khyenpa received Drogön Rechen (also known as Sangye Rechen Peldrak, 1148-1218), as his heart disciple. As such, Drogön Rechen was entrusted with details of his next incarnation. Along with transmitting Dusum Khyenpa’s lineage, Drogön Rechen became instrumental in recognizing that the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, was the reincarnation of Dusum Khyenpa. 

Along with fulfilling his life’s purpose of caring for his students, Dusum Khyenpa was active in dispelling disputes and mediating between feuding factions across Kham. His skillful interventions, and sometimes his mere presence, repeatedly resulted in the resolution of deeply entrenched animosities and personal conflicts. This pattern of peacemaking recurs again and again in the lives of Dusum Khyenpa’s successors in the Karmapa reincarnation lineage and forms a key component of their activity in the world. 

Establishing Monasteries and Other Deeds

At the age of 55 (1164), Dusum Khyenpa founded a monastery at Kampo Nonang; and at the age of 60 (1169), he started the Panphuk monastery in Lithang, in East Tibet. Later, at the age of 76 (1185), he established an important seat at Karma Gön, in eastern Tibet (1184). At 80 (1189), he established his main seat at Tsurphu, in the Tolung valley, a river that feeds into the Brahmaputra, in central Tibet.

Years before, when Dusum Khyenpa was still residing in central Tibet, Gampopa’s nephew, Gomtsul, had counseled him that, come what may, he should return to central Tibet after his time in Kham. Always valuing each instruction he received from his teachers, Dusum Khyenpa harbored no hopes of reuniting with his lama at the other end of the journey, for by this time both Gampopa and Gomtsul had passed away. 

Teachings and Other Works in Central Tibet

His huge circle of disciples at Kampo Nenang, Karma Gön, and elsewhere across the region offered him more than ample opportunity to be of benefit in Kham. Yet, in his late 70s, Dusum Khyenpa undertook the arduous journey back to central Tibet, meeting his commitments to his teachers, and guided by his own sense of what more he might do for others.

Once he reached central Tibet, Dusum Khyenpa first visited Daglha Gampo, where he taught extensively, oversaw the reconstruction of buildings that had fallen into disrepair, and offered a 100-volume scriptural collection written by hand in gold to the monastery.

Dusum Khyenpa’s powers to pacify disputes were urgently needed in central Tibet as well, for a celebrated master who was a fellow disciple of Gampopa named Lama Zhang (Tselpa Tsundru Drakpa, 1123/1121-1193) was exhibiting increasingly unconventional behavior that caused considerable social disapproval. Although many others had attempted to bring to an end the tensions, none were successful. Through Dusum Khyenpa’s activities in negotiating with him, Lama Zang behaved better and people settled down. This was considered to be an important contribution to peace in central Tibet.

Another major deed of Dusum Khyenpa during this period was the founding of Tsurphu Monastery, west of Lhasa in Tölung, the area where Dusum Khyenpa had himself first come to study as a young man.

Tsurphu would go on to become a thriving center for study and practice, and an important site for the continuity of the Karmapa reincarnation line. For 900 years, in every single successive lifetime, the Karmapa has resided for some period at Tsurphu Monastery. 

His Final Teaching

In 1193, Dusum Khyenpa left his books and relics to his main student, Drogön Rechen, and gave away the remainder of his possessions to various Dharma communities in Gampopa’s lineage. Among his other main disciples were Tak-lungpa, founder of the Ta-lung Kagyu, Tsangpa Gyare, founder of the Drukpa Kagyu, and Lama Khadampa Deshek, founder of the Katok Nyingma lineage.

On the third day of the Tibetan New Year, 84-year-old Dusum Khyenpa gave a final Dharma teaching to the assembly at Tsurphu, lifted his gaze to the sky, and entered meditation. He sat meditating for the remainder of the morning. At noon, the First Karmapa relinquished the body he had used so well to benefit beings in that lifetime and moved on to take the next. He left a letter behind predicting his rebirth. Dusum Khyenpa had declared that he would return, even for the sake of just one single being, and thus started the tulku tradition

Dusum Khyenpa’s Legacy

The Karmapa’s accomplishment in meditation and the practices transmitted to him by his teachers were greatly enhanced by his own natural compassion. His practice produced rapid results and great accomplishments, or siddhis. Such accomplishment is often perceived by followers as the ability to perform miraculous activities.

 The legends of the Karmapas through the ages speak of their ability, through the manifestation of seemingly miraculous activity, to create a great sense of wonder and faith in their students. All the Karmapas have since been known for their ability to inspire, through their simple presence, this profound sense of wonder and faith in the reality of the accomplishment which is the fruition of the Buddhist path.

Dusum Khyenpa was the founder of the Karma Kagyu lineage, the most influential of the Tibetan Buddhist lineages outside of Tibet. This tradition is studied and practiced all around the world today.

* It is customary to use the name by which a great master was eventually known even if the period under discussion covers his or her early years. 

** The letter, A, pronounced Ah, has special significance.  It is considered to be the sound and vibration of an enlightened state of being.

Transcribed and annotated by Ellie Strand. All mistakes are mine.