Rolpe Dorje - Forth Karmapa


While the mother of the future Fourth Karmapa was pregnant, many auspicious signs appeared in her dreams that heralded the birth of a great Teacher. On the eighth day of the third month in the year of Iron Dragon (1340) Rolpe Dorje, Fourth Karmapa, was born. From the baby’s lips were coming sounds of six-syllable mantra and a delicate fragrance was radiating from his body.

When he was a kid, Rolpe Dorje often manifested his extraordinary abilities. At age of three he declared:
- I am Karma Pakshi. Many of my students are here, that’s why I came.

Suddenly he sat in a posture of Buddha of Limitless Light (Amitabha) and explained to his mother that in this posture he was in her womb.

When he was six, they asked their extraordinary boy about his former lives and he told:
- I am Dusum Khyenpa and Karma Pakshi. I was travelling to China and pacifying Mongolian army. I am the one watching from clouds. My Lama is emptiness and I am your Lama. Now I have three manifestations: one of them is next to Bodhisattva Ratnamati, another is enjoying the company of Immovable One (Akshobhya) and the third – it’s me. Now you probably have doubts about my words but soon it will change. You are my disciples.

Soon after lama Gon Gyalwa who was one of the mentors of Rolpe Dorje started to question the boy regarding details of his life in his former incarnation as Rangjung Dorje:

- Karmapa was promising to live for eighty-four years, - he said, - but died at fifty-five. What did happen?
Rolpe Dorje responded:
- There were not many religious people at the time and everyone was living very negative lifestyle. It saddened Rangjung Dorje and he decided to move away from here.

Go Gyalwa continued to interview the young lama and asked why after the death of Third Karmapa many people saw his face on the full moon’s disc.
- Rangjung Dorje, - explained the boy, - had a limitless compassion and his students were deeply devoted to him. These two conditions merged and in effect his image appeared on the moon’s disc.

Young Rolpe Dorje had many spontaneous visions – signs of natural unfolding of his spiritual potential. Once he got flu and started to meditate to Buddha of Medicine. During meditation Buddha gave him a crystal cup with water and Rolpe Dorje took a sip of it. His sickness was immediately over and he got an experience of presence of Buddha nature in all that exists. It is said he could see different Buddha-families in his own vessels of blood and energy-fields (mandalas) of Buddhas in every atom. Once he manifested himself in ten bodies at the same time and was listening ten different Dharma teachings in ten different Pure Lands. His own realization of Buddha nature, which penetrates all experiences and phenomena, was manifesting very distinctively in all his deeds.

Awakening of compassion, naturally characteristic to young Karmapa, was marked by a special vision. Karmapa assumed a form of Bodhisattva Loving Eyes and descended to the hell to lessen suffering of beings, determined by very aggressive activities in their past. Evoking rain of compassion he wiped the flames of hatred, and beings, who were not able to find a way out from that gruesome condition, returned to the fundamental balance of their mind.

Young Rolpe Dorje was like Garuda – a mystical bird who break out frm an egg completely matured. In his visions he was visiting Oddiyana – the land of Dakini and Vajrayogini gave profound teachings him there:

- Your mind is by nature without beginning. Allow the meditation, visualisation and mantra to arise freely. Offer offerings in form of blessings and good wishes. If you will practice it eight days in row, you will attain the spiritual power of Vajrayogini.

In his other dreams Rolpe Dorje was transferred to the Pure Land Potala. There he directly saw the mandala of Bodhisattva Loving Eyes in all it’s purity and thanks to it realized the true essence of Great Seal.

Wishing to describe and share his experience with others, Rolpe Dorje composed songs about his visions and experiences. At age of nine he started to study kagyu and Nyingma traditions. Thanks to his natural talents he acquired knowledge with unseen ease, almost without an effort.

When Rolpe Dorje was thirteen, he was travelling to Central Tibet. On the way he was passing by Dag Lha Gampo, the Gampopa’s Monastery, and this shrine appeared to him in a form of stupa, made of precious stones and surrounded by Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Mahasiddhas. To express his admiration for this place, the Karmapa sang a song of praise. In the Pagmodru Monastery Karmapa Rolpe Dorje was warmly received by Tibetan ruler Tai Situ Jangchub Gyaltsen. From here Karmapa went to Tsurphu – the main residence of Karmapas. Approaching his monastery, he saw an inspiring manifestation of Vajrayogini in the sky.

For a while, preparing to assume monk’s vows, Rolpe Dorje was learning texts of Vinaya, where discipline in monasteries is described very precisely. At fourteen he became a novice receiving all appropriate instructions from Dondrub Pala Rinpoche. Beginning of monastic path was marked with a new name for Karmapa – Dharmakirti.

Dondrub Pal Rinpoche was awakening a sense of enourmous richness of transmission lineage of Düsum Khyenpo into a small Rolpe Dorje. While meditating Karmapa often saw many forms of his first incarnation – as many as stars in the sky. The practice he later paid a great attention was meditation to Buddha of limitless Light (Amitabha), associated with long life. Practicing in a solitary retreat, due to his dreams and meditative experiences, Rolpe Dorje clearly realized profound teachings of Buddha of Limitless Light.

After retreat Rolpe Dorje invited the scientist from Nyingma tradition, named Gyalwa Yongten, who was a lineage holder of Karma Kagyu transmission, the successor of Rangjung Dorje, - to visit him. During the meeting with Yongten, Rolpe Dorje spontaneously realized mandalas of peaceful and formidable Buddha-aspects. The white-haired scientist told him:

- I am very old man, but came to you from afar, because Rangjung Dorje was exceptionally kind when teaching me. I ask you, please tell me everything you can recall from your former lives.

Karmapa responded that he can’t clearly recall all events of his former life in the body of Düsum Khyenpa and remembers just a litlle from his incarnation as Rangjung Dorje. But all the life of the Second Karmapa Karma Pakshi he can see clearly as on his palm. Hearing this, Yongten was very happy and prostrated at the feet of his young student.

Later Yongten gave many teachings to Karmapa. Due to his efforts and those of other teachers, Rolpe Dorje received many profound teachings.

At age of eighteen he received full ordination to become a monk from Döndrub Pala Rinpoche. The same year he met the famous lama from Sakya school Sonam Gyaltsen and received initiation in tantra of Gyalwa Gyamtso, the red form of Bodhisattva Loving Eyes. When the two great lamas met they felt a deep genuine respect for each other's spiritual authority.

A year later the Mongolian emperor Togon Temur, who was eager to restore the spiritual connection with the transmission lineage of Karmapa, invited Rolpe Dorje to his court.But Karmapa at the time was traveling and giving teachings in Tibet and was unable to go immediately. On his return to Tsurphu he found a second letter of invitation from Togon Temur, where he wrote:

I am the emperor, ruler of heavens. I heard you Karmapa Rolpe Dorje have taken birth for the benefit of us all and are arriving in Tsurphu. Therefore, I respectfully beg you to remember your deeds of the past. Our age of decay is full of suffering. Think about these sufferings and that the deeper nature of humans is good. I beg you to share the nectar of Buddha’s Teachings to delight us. Nowadays many beings are failing – show your kindness and direct them in right direction. I ask you to leave your home. Don’t worry about the hardships of road and your health, come soon. Buddha never worries about himself, wishing to bring more benefit to all beings. Give us the honour and arrive immediately. When you will arrive we will share the Teachings of Buddha together and benefit all beings. Rolpe Dorje Karmapa, hear this request!
As an offering I’m sending you the altar accessories, gold bullion, three bullions of silver and eighteen rolls of silk brocade.
This is sent from Tai-ya Tu, residence of the emperor, on the tenth day of the tenth month, in the year of Earth Monkey. "

Nineteen years old Karmapa accepted invitation and started the long and difficult road to Beijing. He started his travel on the ninth month of the year of Earthen Dog. Most part of his time while travelling he was dedicating to writing. When his convoy arrived at Shavo, Mongolian representatives decided that the local population would like to provide new horses, yaks and porters to Karmapa and his escort for free. But Rolpe Dorje declined:
- Please, do not ask anything from people. I will order myself everything necessary. Never put a burden on ordinary people.

But even so, the local people responded to a compassionate gesture by Karmapa and brought many presents. Rolpe Dorje gave them teachings on non-violence, development of compassion and kindness. For those who already had started to meditate Karmapa explained Mahamudra and Six Yogas of Naropa. At the time he himself had attained realization of Ati-yoga – the highest teaching in Nyingma tradition.

The road of Rolpe Dorje was lying through the mountains of Wu Tan Shan and he made a short pilgrimage to five mountain peaks of Manjushri. There he met five Indian yogins who brought with them a statue of Buddha made by the great Nagarjuna. They gave this statue to Karmapa as a gift. In this period Karmapa composed many songs dedicated to Manjushri.

Continuing his road, he was invited to visit a residence of a local prince Sangha Shri to give a series of Dharma teachings for a court and ordinary folk. Karmapa significantly helped the local people, stopping the invasion of locusts, which posed a serious threat to crops. Travelling through tiny provinces, he often reconciled warring parties and witnessed the signing of peace agreements. A substantial part of his assets he donated for restoration of peace and the construction of monasteries. The main source of inspiration for Rolpe Dorje during that period was Yamantaka, manifesting the indestructible nature of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It was Yamantaka who eliminated all disturbances to compassionate activities of Karmapa. Among other things Rolpe Dorje pacified outrageous local spirits and afterwards Kagyu teachings reigned there for a long time.

Another noteworthy event that took place during this journey was a visit of Rolpe Dorje Karmapa to the famous "magic" temple of Sakya Pandita. In Minyag Karmapa taught Dharma, and asked a mercy for the local governor, who was revolting against Khan. The presence of a high lama reassured people and encouraged them to lead a peaceful life.

At last, on the eleventh day of the twelfth month of year of Iron Mouse, cortege arrived at the palace of Tai-Ya Tu, where the Emperor and Empress staged a grand reception for Rolpe Dorje. A few days later the Empress successfully bore a son, who was named Maytripala. The genuine sincerity of Togon Temur to Kagyu teachings was so obvious that Karmapa could give him at once all three parts of transmission: the transmission of Vajrayogini, Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra of Tilopa. Rolpe Dorje introduced foundations of Buddhism to emperor’s children and then gave general precepts of Buddha teachings and peaceful lifestyle to local people, consisting mostly from Mongolians, Chinese and a few smaller nations. To celebrate the arrival of his Lama, emperor released all inmates from prisons and freed monks of necessity to comply with court’s etiquette. During his visit to China Karmapa did a lot for people. He directed his compassion to healing the sick and mitigate difficult weather conditions.

After three years spent in China Rolpe Dorje received a message in a dream that emperor’s life is coming to an end. It was a sign Karmapa had to return in Tibet. Togon Temur was upset when he heard about the decision of his Lama, and begged him to stay.

- Before your arrival, - he explained – everything was asking so much effort. Now everything is easily achieved. I beg you to stay here, so we can spread Dharma in the same way as Kublai Khan and Sakya Pandita were doing it. Please think well. All clans that previously had resisted the imperial power now behave peacefully. I've got a small son. You are the teacher who brings good luck.

Rolpe Dorje responded to him:
- I don’t have experience enough as of yet. It’s better not to pretend. All I can is to give blessings, awaken the essence of Three Jewels and to give teachings. All my words are written down and now I have to return to Tibet. A monk should go everywhere where he can benefit beings. It’s best to avoid attachment to some particular country.

Emperor reluctantly allowed Rolpe Dorje to go. And in the first month of the year of Wooden Tiger, Karmapa departed. In this journey, as in his previous one, he devoted much time and energy to work for the prosperity of those territories, through which he passed through. Together with Sakya teacher Lhachen Sonam Solo, Karmapa saved inmates convicted to punishment. Later, going through a place Kora in Minyag he founded a new monastery there and was giving teachings for a while.

In this travel each day for Karmapa was filled by meditations, teachings and charity. All gifts he received he gave away to poor people and monasteries. One day, the caravan reached Kongjo area in the north-west of Tibet, where an epidemic of pox had just begun. Citizens were talking that in the night Karmapa arrived above the roof of his house load noise were heard. Next morning Karmapa declared that the epidemic will stop now, because during the night he manifested himself in form of Garuda and eliminated all evil energies that were causing it. He was quite surprised hearing that some people have heard a noise created by Garuda, because it was just an activity of his formless mind.

Rolpe Dorje was very interested in Indian poetry. In Kangjo Saraswati appeared to him in a dream – the tantric female consort of Manjushri, Buddha of Wisdom, embodiment of artistry and creative energy. She handed cup of sour milk to Karmapa and told to drink it. The next morning, waking from sleep, Rolpa Dorje discovered a new quality - the ability to deeply understand poetry.

When Karmapa with his escort arrived into area called Tsonkha, near the Kokonor lake, local rulers received him with honours. Rolpe Dorje gave teachings and food and clothing for free. Then, sitting on the shore of the lake, he wrote a text entitled "Elimination of wrong views" (Tibetan: lta ba nying bsal). Here he met a small boy who later became a great teacher Tsongkhapa – the head lama of Gelug lineage (and Dalai-lama). Karmapa gave him a Refuge, precepts of laity and a new Dharma-name – Kunga Nyngpo. In a prediction Karmapa said:

- This precious child will bring a great benefit to beings. His birth in Tibet is comparable to arrival of the second Buddha.

At the time one of Karmapa’s devotees, princess Punyadhari in a region of Minyag, saw a huge thangka of Buddha Shakyamuni in a dream: Buddhas face was twenty cubits in width in it. Karmapa heard about this dream and came up with a way to make it true. Rolpe Dorje was riding on a horse around a huge plot of earth drawing the outline of this image right on the ground with horseshoes. Proportions of the Buddha’s body, painted in such an unusual way, were perfect. Then the figure was brought to a huge piece of silk: on either side of the central figure of Buddha Shakyamuni two Bodhisattvas were portrayed: Manjushri and Maitreya. Five hundred people were working thirteen months to create this masterpiece. Rolpe Dorje gave his blessings to it and during the ceremony many auspicious signs appeared. Later princess Punyadhari gave this thangka to her Lama as a present.

Later Punyadhari turned to Karmapa for advice when her territory was almost attacked by Mongolian army. Then Rolpe Dorje, with his usual courage, founded in complete absence of anger and hatred, called the essence of wisdom and compassion from a space , and Mongolian army retreated from the borders of principality. Local people were full of joy. Rolpe Dorje spent three months there and during that time an atmosphere of love and kindness reigned between all people and other beings in this valley.

The fact Karmapa was so active in Dharma and charity caused envy in some circles. Conspiracies were planned against him, but they never succeeded. Rolpe Dorje established in his travelling camp a strict schedule, like in monastery. From moment he woke up to nine o’clock he was doing his spiritual practices. From nine o’clock to noon he was giving Dharma teachings. At noon started to perform prostrations and walking meditations. Afternoon time he devoted to meditation on the Bodhisattva Loving Eyes, and in the evening was studying or writing texts. His nights passed in the practice of dream-yoga. Rolpe Dorje was vegetarian and introduced this rule for all disciples in the camp.

Even surrounded by intrigues and gossip, Karmapa remained genuine and free of bias. Unlike many other luminaries of spirituality, Rolpe Dorje did not show an exceptional attention to rich benefactors - this attitude he kept for those students who were meditating good. Everywhere Karmapa arrived he was striving to work for benefit of others, using for it all possible methods: starting with building bridges to teaching metaphysics. His life was a great example of Bodhisattva activities and skillful mastery of all facets of Buddha's teachings.

Once, Karmapa and his entourage arrived in a principality Nangchen. Karmapa was not well, and it caused a great alarm among his companions. But he reassured people by telling them that the time to die for him has not yet arrived, and added that death will come to him in a very open area, where are many deer and wild horses.

- If I will become sick in such a place, I will die, - said Rolpe Dorje. – So don’t lose my books.

And the procession moved to monastery Karma Gon, where the Karmapa was going to give teachings for monks.

Before to continue the road, Karmapa asked his disciples to take a reserve of juniper wood. He explained that in China, if an honourable man dies, custom orders request a sandalwood or agar to be used for funeral pyres, but in Tibet there are no such trees and therefore it’s better to prepare juniper.

On arrival in Nagchu one of Karmapa's monks broke his arm, which was considered a very unfavorable sign.

At that time Rolpa Dorje were telling his disciples and companions about intrinsic shortcomings of samsara and the fact the vast majority of people are not able to follow the Dharma. Once he added:

- May be it would be worth to show people the real nature of samsara, the impermanence of all phenomena.

One of his students, monk Rekarva, realized that Karmapa meant his own death approaching, and begged him to stay in the world. But nobody else even thought about it and they were laughing about Rekarva.


Soon after the camp of Karmapa was located in barren plains of northern Tibet. Many students had seen bad omens, and the Karmapa indirectly confirmed these fears. In the night of full moon on the sevenths month of Water Pig (1383) Rolpe Dorje became sick. Looking into space, he read the invocation of Samantabhadra, sat down to meditate – and left his body before the dawn. The time of his death was marked by strange atmospheric phenomena and people around explained them by Daki and Dakini welcoming Karmapa in the Pure Land. That night throughout Tibet many people who personally knew Karmapa had visions of him.

Ashes of Rolpe Dorje from cremation ground were delivered to Tsurphu Monastery and placed on altar as a relic.

Among the closest disciples of Fourth Karmapa Rolpe Dorje were Shamar Kacho Wangpo, Drikung Chökyi Drakpa and Lobsang Drakpa Tsongkapa.