Thongwa Dönden - Sixth Karmapa
Sixth Karmapa Thongwa Dönden was born in 1416 in Ngoma, near Karma Gon Monastery, in Kham, that was founded by first Karmapa Düsum Khyenpa in 12th century. Thus he kept his promise given to residents of the eastern region in his previous incarnation.
Parents of the future Karmapa were devoted to Buddha teachings. While his mother was pregnant, she and her husband had unusual dreams. Now, looking to the new-born son, they both agreed he is somewhat extraordinary.
When Thongwa Dönden was only a few months old, parents brought him to Lama Ngompa Jadral, a student of Fifth Karmapa. The small baby was very excited about this meeting and surprisingly began to say alphabet. Ngompa Jadral asked the kid:
- Who are you actually?
In response Thongwa Dönden said:
- I am the unborn one, above the place and time; I’m the greatness of all living beings. I will bring many towards Liberation!
Soon the Third Shamar Rinpoche Chöpel Yeshe (1406-1452) officially recognized the boy as Sixth Karmapa and enthroned him. As a small child Thongwa Donden already visited many Kagyu monasteries and his early development, ahead of his age, and qualities left an impressive impression to everyone around. In Tsurmang monastery he met the First Trungpa Kung Gyaltsen and immediately surprised him with a question:
- Where is the protective ribbon I gave in my former life?
Lama Trungpa, full of excitement, found the ribbon and prostrated in front of his Master.
Already as a kid Thongwa Dönden discovered his highest spiritual attainments, experiencing many visions, when different Yidams and Buddhas appeared to him. In 1424, at age of eight, Karmapa took the vows of novice and Bodhisattva vow from a teacher Sonam Zangpo. Afterwards he began to study under guidance of holy men Ratnabhadra. This Lama was considered an incarnation of Rechungpa – a disciple of a famous poet and yogi Milarepa, - transmitted many Dharma texts to young Thongwa Dönden and also gave initiations and oral transmissions to tantras of Vajrayogini, Hevajra and Mahamudra practice. Additionally Karmapa received transmission of Tilopa’s teachings from Shamar Rinpoche.
The spiritual education of Thongwa Dönden was not limited by Kamtsang tradition alone. He was diligently learning five tantras and Six teachings Of Niguma from transmission lineage of Shangpa Kagyu, and also the doctrine Dug Ngal Shije by Padampa Sangye.
In his teenage years, the Sixth Karmapa was trying to develop a coherent ceremonial system for Kamtsang tradition. The main focus in Karma Kagyu usually has been on meditation itself, that’s why this school has been labelled a “meditation lineage” (Tib: sgrub brgyud), and not much attention to rituals and ceremonies have been paid. Most rituals practiced in Karma Kagyu at the time were derived from other traditions. Thongwa Dönden was attempting to create a solid fundament for his own tradition of rituals native to the Kamtsang school and with this in mind he wrote multiple sadhanas - detailed practical guidelines for rituals.
He wrote also instructions for meditations on Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara – the main Yidams of Kagyu tradition – and the long version of Preparatory practices Ngöndro (Tib. sngon ‘gro). Thongwa Dönden introduced a new method of mantra repetitions and made a detailed text on Mahakala dances and related rituals. This Karmapa’s work had such a great success not only by the force of his effort, but also because of intuitive seeing the truth, that added a special power and depth to his work.
When he finished this period when he was inspired to write, Karmapa took a full ordination of a monk and went on a pilgrimage to monasteries in central Tibet. He had many visions during this trip. In one of them Mahakala with his tantric consort gave to Karmapa special instructions regarding Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra of Tilopa. The other time Tilopa, Milarepa and Vimalamitra appeared to him in a dream, this way joining transmissions of Mahamudra and Maha Ati together. After some while Buddha Vajradhara appeared to him, accompanied by First Karmapa Düsum Khyenpo, symbolizing the power of Kagyu tradition. In another vision Thongwa Dönden met with Indian tantric yogi Dombi Heruka, who arrived riding on a tiger together with his beloved. Dombi Heruka told to Karmapa that he has the perfection of purity and is also free from any defilement.
In Lhasa, the Sixth Karmapa met Kunchen Rongtopa, the head of a monastery of Sakya tradition. This Lama gave him many teachings. Delighted with a brilliant mind of Thongwa Dönden, Rongtopa announced:
- My student is Buddha.
Around the same time Karmapa saved from destruction and restored monasteries Sangphu and Ngagphu. After this he went to Tsurphu and from Tsurphu to Kham. Due to his unaffected perception, Thongwa Dönden experienced everything around as a Pure Land. In one of places he saw Vajrayogini. In Surmang, the main monastery of a special Chakrasamvara transmission lineage that was brought by Tilopa, Chakrasamvara himself appeared to him. In location Dolma Lhakang, Tara appeared to Karmapa, inspiring him to write auspicious songs in her honour. In other valley he saw one of the Five Great Lamas of Sakya tradition – Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, and right after this a peace was signed between local princes who had been in war since long time.
Thongwa Dönden ordered new editions of Kagyur and Tengyur, paying for it by gifts from grateful students.
All of his life Karmapa continued to receive teachings from the great philosopher Nagarjuna and yogis Milarepa and Padmasambhava through his visions.
In 1452 Thongwa Dönden felt his death was approaching. Lama Sangye Senge offered to perform rituals for long life of Karmapa, but he replied:
- Nothing will happen to me in this year. But during the first nine months of the next year I will make a decision myself whether to extend my life.
When the time was ripe, Karmapa went into seclusion. He was dwelling in area Kongpo in south of Tibet to prepare to an end. His books and ritual objects he entrusted to care of Gyaltsab Gushri Paljor, among the things leaving also the prediction letter regarding conditions of birth of future Karmapa to him. Then Thongwa Donden approached Gyaltsab with such a request:
- Please, take care of transmission lineage of Kagyu until my return. There is a war going on between Shambala and Mecca right now. I am leaving to help to Shambala.
His last months of life Karmapa dedicated to song-writing. In the beginning of 1453 at age of thirty-seven he announced to his students and assistants:
- I am departing to meeting with Kagyu Lamas and I ask you to learn this invocation: "I turn to Thongwa Dönden, the great manifestation of compassion. The embodiment of all Buddhas, please, look to me with love.
In a deep meditation he passed away. After cremation of Karmapa’s body, many relics were found between ashes.
Most important students of Sixth Karmapa Thongwa Dönden were Gyaltsab Gushri Paljor, Situ Tashi Namgyal and Bengar Jampal Zangpo. To them he entrusted to lead his transmission lineage.