The life of the first Karma-pa, Dus-gsum mkhyen-pa “the knower of the three times” (1110-1193): An annotated translation of his biography from Zla-ba chu-shel-gyi phreng-ba is Ji-young Lee’s MA Thesis from Indiana University, published by ProQuest in 2016.
In her introduction, Ji-young Lee (2016) provides a brief account of the historical background of the socio-political milieu and circumstances that contributed to the proliferation of religious innovation and intellectual activity during the period of “Tibetan Renaissance” in the twelfth century, following 150 years of social and political turmoil. Dus gsum mkhyen pa (Dudsum Khenpo) lived through a transformative period in Tibetan intellectual, social and political life in which he was a major actor as an influential practitioner of esoteric Buddhism. Although Ji-young Lee primarily intends to explore the political and social milieu behind the life of Dus gsum mkhyen pa, who became the first Karmapa, Situ Panchen’s biography of Dus gsum mkhyen pa pays little attention to the latter’s social and political life. While the bulk of the biography contributes to our understanding of Dus gsum mkhyen pa’s relationships and interactions with various influential teachers of his time and his numerous accounts of ritual performance and magical feats, there are also occasional episodes of acts and events in this life narrative that testify to or signal certain socio-political affairs. Along with the translation of Situ Panchen’s Zla-ba chu-shel-gyi phreng-ba, Ji-young Lee extensively annotates her translation where she investigates and highlights the social and political environment of the time and places in which Dus gsum mkhyen pa was involved in creatively while competing for resources and reputation against other clans and sects (p. 7). By institutionalizing the reincarnation system, Dus gsum mkhyen pa created an alternative system to the clan-based structure of sectarian continuity which decisively shaped the future of the Tibetan political system. He was not merely a participant in the revival of the Tibetan Buddhist cultural renaissance, but a major actor at the height of Tibet’s intellectual rebirth.
Dus gsum mkhyen pa (1110-1193) was born in 1110 as a son of the yogin-meditator Sngags-’chang Rdo-rje-mgon and yoginī Lha-thog-bza’ Sgang-lcam ming-’dren in Bye-brag ra-stag or Sbo-chu lha-sdong dkar-po in Tre-shod gangs-kyi ra-ba in the eastern region of Mdo-smad (p. 19). He was ordained at the age of six at a Kadam monastery named Ka-brag in Tre (tre-ka-brag) and received his first Saṃvara initiation in the Atiśa lineage. At nineteen, Dus gsum mkhyen pa left for Utsang where he studied at many different monasteries with various masters of different sects. His most notable teacher was Gampopa under whose tutelage Dus gsum mkhyen pa studied and received numerous instructions on meditation as well as other ritual transmissions. Situ Panchen not only traces the lineage of Dus gsum mkhyen pa to Gampopa, but also all the way to Milarepa, Marpa, Naropa, and Tilopa. Situ also considers Dus gsum mkhyen pa as an emanation of Lokeśvara Mahākaruṇā. Dus gsum mkhyen pa also studied with Milarepa’s disciple the Great Rje-btsun Ras-chung-pa (1084/85-1161/62) from whom he received the Six Doctrines of Nāropa and other instructions of Maitrīpa. Dus gsum mkhyen pa’s effortless movement from various monasteries studying under different teachers demonstrates the vibrant and eclectic intellectual and spiritual environment of the time. It shows that the sectarian differences amongst the Tibetan Buddhist communities or monasteries weren’t as clear-cut and rigid because their institutional structures were just beginning to take shape.
One feature of Tibetan Buddhist practice that was characteristically prominent in this period is the proliferation of interest and involvement in esoteric ritual practices. Situ Panchen contributes a considerable section of the biography narrating various accounts of Dus gsum mkhyen pa’s ritual initiations and the performance of magical powers –from Dus gsum mkhyen pa flying to Uddiyāna amongst ḍākinīs and emanating into thousands of bodies visiting Kashmir and China at the same time or curing the crippled, lepers, blind, and the mute with touch his hand. Dus gsum mkhyen pa also received and practiced ritual activities associated with the deity Mahākāla or Hevajra Tantra. Such practices of esoteric Buddhism attracted many rulers as well as ordinary laymen to Tibetan Buddhism from beyond its cultural realm.
There are a number of occasions where Situ, although with little elaboration, reveals how Dus gsum mkhyen pa had to involve and intervene in political matters of the time. When Dus gsum mkhyen pa was in Kham carrying out various religious activities including building monasteries, he was summoned by his teacher to Utsang to help and reconcile the “disturbances created” by Lama Zhang of Tshelpa (p. 79). As Lee notes, Lama Zhang’s activities were described as “violent siddha-like” activities which caused conflicts in Tshel, and David Jackson (1994) comments that Zhang’s erection of the Gung-thang vihāra coincided with Dus-gsum mkhyen-pa’s visit to Tshel (p. 79). Lee suspects that this might have been the cause of the conflict in question in Tshel. Another event of political significance was the dispatch of his disciple Gtsang po ba to the Tangut kingdom. Dus-gsum mkhyen-pa stated that the king of Minyak (Tangut) was the reincarnation of Yogic Lord Ma taṃ gi pa, one of the 80 Great Siddhas, and that they have a very profound spiritual relationship (p. 89). As confirmed by later historical works, it is true that a Tibetan hierarch by the name of Gtsang po ba was in fact a spiritual preceptor of the Tangut court, and the contemporary scholarship maintains that it was probably in the Tangut kingdom where the perennial model of “priest-patron” relationship began and shaped the environment and the terms of political relationship amongst Tibetans, Mongols, and Manchus in later centuries. Ji-young Lee’s richly annotated translation of Situ Panchen’s biography of Dus-gsum mkhyen-pa offers a brief but close look at the life of this important historical figure and his achievements during a formative period in Tibetan history.