Shamar Rinpoche. A Golden Swan in Turbulent Waters: The Life and Times of the Tenth Karmapa Choying Dorje. Lexington, Virginia: Bird of Paradise Press, 2012
Summary by Mariah Johnson
The biography of The Tenth Karmapa Choying Dorje (1604 – 1674) titled A Golden Swan in Turbulent Waters: The Life and Times of the Tenth Karmapa Choying Dorje (2012) by Shamar Rinpoche, the Fourteenth Shamarpa, chronicles the life of the Tenth Karmapa by utilizing translations of the Karmapa’s actual autobiographical writings in conjunction with an 18th century biography of him written by Bey Lotsawa Tshewang Kukyhab (referred to in the book as BL). In a narrative sense, the biography portion of the book alternates between the autobiographical writings of the Tenth Karmapa (referred to as “10th Karmapa”) and Bey (referred to as “BL”). The Tenth Karmapa was born in the Golok region of Tibet and traveled extensively throughout his life, spending time in east, southeast, and central Tibet. The book, divided into three parts (Tibetan history 13th to 17th centuries, examples of the Tenth Karmapa’s art including illustrations, and the biography as the final part) serves to illuminate the challenges the Tenth Karmapa faced including exile and political turbulence in Tibet.
A Golden Swan in Turbulent Waters: The Life and Times of the Tenth Karmapa Choying Dorje was written by Shamar Rinpoche, the Fourteenth Shamarpa and a direct lineage-descendant of the Sixth Shamarpa, who was the Karmapa’s guru. The book was published in 2012, not long before Shamar Rinpoche’s death in 2014. Shamar Rinpoche used translations of the Tenth Karmapa’s autobiographical writings as well as drawing from an eighteenth-century biography on the Tenth Karmapa to write this biography, in which he includes annotations and offers a thorough historical account of early to mid-seventeenth century Tibetan people and politics. Shamar Rinpoche begins the biography with an account of Orgyen Kyab’s (the Tenth Karmapa’s birth name) somewhat tumultuous childhood. Born to relatively high-ranking parents as his mother was a member of the Kyruruza clan and his father a member of the Bitsa clan, Orgyen Kyab ended up under the control of Chakmo Gushri, a local warlord. The way in which this arrangement came to be has to do with the death of the Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk and the subsequent search for his reincarnation, which was initially spearheaded by Chokyi Wangchuk (the Sixth Shamarpa), for whom the Ninth Karmapa was his master. Once Chakmo Gushri, whom Shamar Rinpche depicts as cunning, got wind of the fact that Orgyen Kyab was being considered as the reincarnation of the Ninth Karmapa, he sought to acquire control over the boy. Gushri went on to essentially bribe the leader of Golok, the region Orgyen Kyab was from, and the leader sold Orgyen Kyab and his family to Gushri.
Unable to get Chakmo Gushri to give the boy up for training, the Sixth Sharmapa asked a student of the Ninth Karmapa, Tsulklak Gyatso (referred to by Shamar Rinpoche as Bodhisattva Gawey Yang), to at least be his guide. In his dominant and withholding way, Chakmo Gushri did not allow Wangchuk Chokyi to meet Orgyen Chokyi for several years. With extensive training, Orgyan Kyab became very good at reading and writing, his main source of learning these skills was by copying letters he received from high lamas and chieftains in large districts in central Tibet. As he continued to expand his spiritual practice and connection with previous Karmapas, Orgyen Kyab was homing in on his writing skills, learning more prayers and would sit and meditate on previous Karmapas, including the Ninth Karmapa. Orgyen Kyab appeared to be especially inspired by the life story of Milarepa, a figure who also had a tumultuous childhood and with whom he could identify, studying not only this figure but also his bodhisattva, Marpa. Around this time, he created his first known drawing in which he depicted a vision of the First Karmapa, and a couple months later he drew a vision of his portraying a well-known moment of Milarepa’s life. Later that very same year, after the receiving word of the death of the interim representative for the Karmapas, it was clear that there was no longer a leader for the Karma Kagyu tradition, and so Chakmo Gushri finally made arrangements for Orgyen Kyab and his family to travel to the Tsurphu Monastery in the year 1614.
Nearly six weeks after Orgyan Kyab had arrived at the Tsurphu Monastery, his bodhisattva, Tsuklak Gyatso arrived, and this was the first time the two had met. Following a particular process in preparation of the initiation ceremony, Tsuklak performed a series of rituals, including cutting a piece of Orgyen Chokyi’s hair and bestowing on him the ordination name of “Choying Dorje”. What followed were years of studying and preparation, in which Tsuklak Gyatso trained Choying Dorje in Buddhist scripture, biographies of other prominent Buddhist figures, as well as some works by previous Karmapas. Choying Dorje spent much of his life traveling, and during this period he traveled to the regions of Tsang and Lijang while learning from his bodhisattva and creating art. At the places he traveled to, especially Tsang, he was held in high regard and treated like a king. Somewhere along the way and amidst all this traveling, Chakmo Gushri finally lost his grip on Choying Dorje and his family, at the behest of the king of Tsang who was perturbed by the arrangement.
Political turbulence was observed by Choying Dorje shortly after as a conflict arose between the king of Tsang and the Mongols, as the king was intent on conquering the entire Ü area. Choying Dorje was unable to stop the king from initiating this war. When he was 21 years old, Choying dorje was finally ordained the Tenth Karmapa. Shortly after that, at the request of the king of Tsang, the Tenth Karmapa and the Sixth Sharmapa were traveling once again, this time to ultimately build a new monastic community which was completed over several months.
In 1629, the Tenth Karmapa embarked on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. A notable stop on the pilgrimage included Dingma Drin, a place where he devoted much of his time to creating his art. Around this time, the Karmapa found out that his bodhisattva had suddenly died but keeps this a secret from the ill Sixth Shamarpa whom he is trying to nurse back to health. Shortly after this however, the Sixth Sharmapa died, which initiated a period of grief for the Karmapa. He continued with his pilgrimage, supervising the construction of a temple in Tsurpu after bringing the Sixth Sharmapa’s remains there, but ultimately spent the years after the back-to-back deaths of his tutors in virtual solitude. The Karmapa then initiated another pilgrimage to Tsari, where he made visits to spiritually significant landmarks.
In the 1640s, the Karmapa lived during the Tibetan Civil War, but did not want to be involved in the conflict, although the king of Tsang, a friend and patron, was a main contender. He ultimately escaped the conflict by heading to Lijang, which he had visited before. At some point, the rebels surrounded Karmapa’s hideout in Lijang and there became a point of tension between the Karmapa and the Fifth Dalia Lama, as the Karmapa requested to have his monasteries restored to him, a request the Fifth Dalai Lama refused. Ultimately, the Mongols successfully attacked the encampment near the end of 1644 and the Karmapa was exiled.
During his exile, the Karmapa chose to travel north to meet the Seventh Shamarpa and concealed his identity by wearing commoner’s clothing and was ultimately reduced to a beggar. According to Shamar Rinpoche and his translations of the Tenth Karmapa’s writing, during this time of extreme turmoil, the Karmapa was able to produce one of his most notable writings, Twelve Deeds of the Buddha. Things began to turn around for the Karmapa at this time as he became venerated by the people in the village, to whom he read and gave Buddhist teachings.
After finally meeting and recognizing the Seventh Shamarpa, the Tenth Karmapa continued to travel and live in exile during the next twelve years, but found solace in art, in the form of paintings, sculptures, and music. It’s at this time that it is believed the Karmapa became a father to several children. In 1672 at the age of 69, the Karmapa finally returned to Ü-Tsang, and before he died was granted permission by the Dalai Lama to return to Tsurphu, though he died before he was able to do so.
So aptly reflected in Shamar Rinpoche’s title of this biography is the Tenth Karmapa’s ability to remain poised and graceful during a life so rife with personal and political challenges.