Chöjing Dorjé (Wylie: Chos byings rdo rje, 1604-1674) was the incarnation of the Tenth Karmapa. Born to a prosperous family in a village in Golok (now Golok Autonomous Region) in Eastern Tibet, his recognition at an early age made him the head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, thereby inheriting the status as one of the most important religious figure in seventeenth century Tibet. The discovery of Chöjing Dorjé as the Karmapa inadvertently attracted the attention of Gushri Chakmo (Wylie: lCags mo), a monk ruler from a nearby region, who forced the entire family to move to his region for monetary gains. He eventually received his religious teachings from the Sixth Zhamar Chokyi Wangchuk (Wylie: Zhwa dmar Chos skyid Dbang chug 1584-1630) in his early and mid-twenties (1624-29). Although the main seat of the Karmapa was at Tsurphu monastery in Central Tibet, the persecution of other sects by the Geluk (Wylie: Dge lug pa) forced him to maintain an itinerant lifestyle for most of his adult life (1630-1650). This took him to various parts of Central Tibet, Kham and Amdo. He developed a proclivity towards solitary meditations and immersed in artistic endeavors, which contrasted sharply with the political activities of some of his contemporary religious leaders (most notably, the Fifth Dalai Lama). In his later fifties (1663), he broke his celibacy vows and became the father of several children. Although his disengagement from politics was construed as one of the causes for decline of the Karma Kagyu tradition, he also built various temples, composed several books and preached drama in his own lifetime. But perhaps, today, he is posthumously renowned for his artistic legacy as a painter. The following biography is based on Irmgard Mengele’s book Riding a Huge Wave of Karma- The Turbulent Life of the Tenth Karmapa.

A Brief Biography

Early Life:

In 1604, the prosperous Bi tsa (Wylie: Sbi tsha) family in Golok’s Smar valley gave birth to a boy who was named Urgen Kyap (Wylie: U rgyan skyabs) The precocious child began showing early signs of miracles; be it him reciting mantra without being taught (9) or proclaiming that he was a lama (14). His carefree childhood came to an abrupt end in 1606 when Gushri Chakmo, a nearby monk ruler, heard of Urgen Kyab’s possibility as a reincarnate lama and therefore tricked the Golok leader to take Ugyen Kyabs and his family to his own encampment (16). The difficulty he and his family endured in these early years appeared to have colored the Karmapa deeply, for he later entitled his autobiography as Wish fulfilling Cow. As predicted by Chakmo, in 1610, at six years of age, Ugyen Kyabs was officially recognized and enthroned as Chos bying Rdo rje, the Tenth Karmapa by Sixth Zhamar Chokyi Wangchuk
, who arrived at the encampment with an entourage of 3000 monks from Tsari in Northwest Lhasa (40). A year later, the arrival of Tume (Wylie: Thu med) Mongols and their soldiers forced Chakmo to take Karmapa to Lhorong whereas the Zhamar left for Mongolia (46).

Early education and travel to Central Tibet:

From 1611 to 1614, i.e. from 8 to 11 years of age, without a proper teacher, Karmapa learned to write and draw by copying various books (52). Although many local people came to offer various goods, he constantly expressed desire for freedom and aversion to wealth (51), a theme that would remain constant in his life. On the invitation of the King of Tsang (Wylie: Gtsang) Karma Phuntsok Namgyal, he finally journeyed to Central Tibet, arriving at Tsurphu, his seat monastery in 1615. His formal ordination as a celibate monk was conducted by the Third Pawo (Wylie: Dpa’ bo), who also became his primary teacher. Under his tutelage, the twelve year old Karmapa learned about life stories of saints (including Milarepa), religious histories, poetics and collected writings of former Karmapas (79). Although he got acquainted with the powerful people such as the Tsang ruler, he remained disinterested in politics and exclaimed, “Isn’t it better to be like Milarepa?” (86). Instead, wherever he went, he developed a practice of copying the paintings in the particular monasteries, such as the Kar style in Pa nam (91). The biography notes that wherever he traveled, he was received warmly, thus noting the prominence of the Karmapa’s lineage.

The Painter Amidst War

In 1621, the King of Tsang was defeated by the Mongol army and died due to an epidemic (107). Mengele writes that “at 18, he longed for the spiritual life that Milarepa embodied.” For the next five years, his early adult years proved to be productive years for the young Karmapa as he finally reunited with Zhamar and began intensive studies. He also began recognizing other lamas (115) and giving teachings (126). The travels to various monasteries in Central Tibet also allowed him to develop an eclectic taste in painting. Whenever he visited a monastery, he copied the painting styles unique to the region. Whether it was learning 11th century Chinese style depictions at Yerpa (125) or copying paintings at Snarthang, painting also began to become an important part of his life. In 1630, at forty-six years of age, his teacher passed away. Karmapa composed a mgur (song) in remembrance of his deceased master (161). He later called for Nepalese craftsmen to build a precious reliquary stupa for his teacher’s relics (167).

In the 1630s, as Prince Arslan from Kokonor invaded Tibet, they started attacking the Karma Kagyud sect. It is noted that “in contrast to many other high clerics from Central Tibet, the Karmapa did not actively cultivate supporters among the Mongols.” (169) His neutral stance earned him criticism from people from the Kagyu sect but also admiration of figures such as the Bonpo King of Beri, who commented that the Karmapa was “trustworthy.” (169) He began going for retreats and distributed most of his wealth to the poor (174).

In 1640, when Gushri Khan defeated Donyo Dorje and brought Kham under his control, Karmapa was stationed at Kongpo. He refused to call military forces and was thus accused of abandoning the king of Tsang, who is later killed in 1642. (181) As the other schools were forcibly converted to Geluk sect, Karmapa fled with his attendant Kuntu Zangpo in 1645 and eventually landed in Gyeltang in Southern Kham (199).

Solitary Travels

The Karmapa was highly respected by the Kings in Southern Kham, such as the King of Lijiang, Chiru, Gyeltang. However, he decided to go to Mi nyag where “he abandoned all worldly entertainments and withdrew to a solitary forest.” (206) Eventually, despite the repeated request of his attendant, he travels alone to his homeland, Golok to visit the reincarnation of his beloved teacher, Zhamar (207). He faced numerous obstacles, such as being robbed by bandits (216). When he eventually reached Golok, he found his homeland destroyed by a local lord (225).

Final Years

In 1660, after twelve years in exile, he was “requested to return to Central Tibet.” Mengele suddenly mentions that around this time, when he was in his mid 50s, he broke his vows and became father to several children with his wife, Kelwa Zangmo (245). He arrived in Lhasa and in 1673, had an audience with the Fifth Dalai Lama, who allowed him to make Tsurphu his permanent resident (257). Finally, as he passed away in 1674, it was noted that he left behind a drawing of a Vajrapani for his son and a white sandalwood statue for his wife (259).


In combing the Tenth Karmapa’s own autobiography along with biographies and historical accounts, Mengele paints a highly detailed picture of his life. She described Karmapa’s life as an “attempt to steer Buddhist practice to a purer, non-worldly context.” (265). Although she concedes that many of her sources are hagiographies that selectively focus on positive presentation of the particular figure, she writes that the Tenth Karmapa, “deserves to be recognized as a real Bodhisattva.” (270) Based on the aptly entitled name, “Riding the huge wave of karma,” the Karmapa is presented as a figure who was profoundly shaped by circumstances beyond his control. Born in a period of immense violence that heavily involved the religious clerics, Karmapa chose to disassociate with politics, a choice which left him in an ambiguous space in historical writings. However, as Mengele points out, he also did work for his tradition, whether it was to built temples, compose works, recognize reincarnations. This work was one attempt to paint a more balanced picture of this highly fascinating figure.