Qichen (Barton) Qian

The biography of the second Rgyal-Dbang Karma-Pa, Karma Ba[gamma]si: translation and annotation


Lawrence Epstein translated the biography of the Second Karmapa (head of the black hat Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism), Karma Pakshi (1204/1206-1283) in 1968. To facilitate our reading, Epstein includes the transcription and translation of the text, and provides detailed annotation and glossary appendix of names, locations, dates etc. This biography gives us an examination of the religious tolerance within the Mongol court, and the political rivalry and struggle between Mongol patrons and Tibetan buddhist communities in the thirteenth century. Karma Pakshi spent his early life in meditation retreats, and restoring monasteries destructed in wars. He was also known to have introduced the six-syllable prayer “Om Mani Padme Hung” to the Tibetan people and taught extensively in the Sino-Tibetan borders. In the later half of Karma Pakshi’s life he refused Kublai Khan’s request to stay in the prince’s court and thus he was prosecuted but then pardoned by the latter. Epstein suggests Kublai’s abrupt change of heart was a reinterpretation of history by the Karmapa historians to save face. Nonetheless, this biography deals with “the alignment of sectarian units and their respective patrons.” We are able to see the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in Sino-Tibetan borders and the religious, political and military aspects of the Mongol Empire.

About the Biography

The Second Karmapa’s biography is part of the biographies of the First through the Fourteenth Karmapa incarnation, “compiled by one karma nges don began rgyas in the iron hare year (1891)” (Epstei v). This copy was brought by Hugh Richardson of St Andrews, Scotland and photocopied by Gene Smith of University of Washington. This biographical literature belongs to the outer biography (phyi’i ram thar) category, which “characterized by the chronological treatment of the subject’s life, and its emphasis upon external events” (Epstein vi). Outer biography is different from inner biography (nang gi rnam thar) and secret biography (gang ba’i rnam thar), both of which “deal primarily with the subject’s religious initiations, spiritual progress, thoughts, revelations, and so on” (Epstein vi).

Though this biography does not deviate from Tibetan lama’s biography and centers on Karma Pakshi’s visions, good deeds and magic, it provides ample details of the Tibeto-Mongol relationship in the thirteenth century and competition and interactions of Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya schools of Tibetan Buddhism and its sectarian leaders’ relation with the Mongol patrons. Below is a detailed summary of the biography.


Born in Sato Ki le stak (sa stod dkyil le stag), Kham in 1204/1206, the second Karmapa, was named Chozin (Chos ‘dzin) by his father Gawang Tsurtsa Prangta (rgya dbang tshur tsha sprang thar) and his mother Sengzang Mangki (seng bza’ skyid).

He revealed his prodigious childhood by mastering letters at the age of six and buddhist scriptures between nine and ten. At the age of eleven, he encountered Pomdrakpa (Spom brag pa), who received full Kagyu transmission from Drogön Rechen, the first Karmapa’s spiritual heir. Pomdrakpa kept him and initiated him as Chokyi Lama (Chos kyi bla ma). Upon initiation, Pomdrakpa conferred on the young Karma Pakshi all teachings and “they became attached to each other like father and son” (Epstein 26). Pomdrakpa then urged Karma Pakshi to go to meditation retreats, “an industrious person achieved in meditation like yourself is necessary for the oral teaching of this tradition. You have come forth for the repeating of the greatness of the oral teachings and the performance of perfect meditation” (Epstein 28). After the young Karma Pakshi spent time meditating with “only a cotton garment” throughout the winter, he finally received full ordination from two Nyingma lamas from Katok Monastery in southern Derge: Jampa Bum (byams pa 'bum, 1179-1252), Katok's third abbot; and Mangpuwa Sonam Bum (mang phu ba bsod nams 'bum, 1222-1282), its fourth abbot (Sorenson, 2011).

One time, Karma Pakshi received the six syllables “Om Mani Padme Hung” from the emanation of Avalokitesvara and introduced this to the Tibetan people. After five-year meditation retreat in Go thang brag, his teacher Pomdrakpa passed away.

Career and Mongol Encounter

At the time the Mongols had just defeated the Xixia kingdom (1227), Mahākāla gave Karma Pakshi an omen saying “Do not stay here! Go to the East” (Epstein 29). He then travelled to Lithang and “cured disease, cripples etc., by the (mere) touch of his hand” (Epstein, 30). He traveled extensively throughout Tibet, mainly in the border between eastern Tibet and China for the next twenty years restoring monasteries and teaching dharma.

He was active in restoring monasteries established by the First Karmapa as well as building new ones. He then received omens to travel to Central Tibet in Dbus and Gtsang, where he started to bestow his teaching. Karma Pakshi had developed a substantial reputation as a worker of miracles, and while he was at Tsurpu, he received an invitation from Khubilai Khan (Sorenson, 2011). At the time, Kublai Khan was only a prince, a nephew of the Mongol head, Ogodei, son of Ghengis Khan (Sorenson, 2011). In 1244, the Mongol prince Godan invited Sakya Pandita and his two nephews Chogyel Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen (chos rgyal 'phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1235-1280) and Channa Dorje (phyag na rdo rje, d. 1267). After Godan Khan died, Pakpa and Channa aligned themselves with Kublai.

The Second Karmapa met Kublai at Rongyul Serto (rong yul gser stod), an area bounded by Lithang on the west and Dartsedo on the east. “All the nobles and subjects revered him” (Epstein, 37). Kublai requested Karma Pakshi to stay with him but he refused because of the repeated prophecy “Do not stay here for a long time, because there will be many rivalries. Go elsewhere” (Epstein, 37). He then traveled to Sino-Tibetan borders such as Ningxia, Liangzhou, and Ganzhou. In Liangzhou, Karma Pakshi defeated the Taoists and the sophists in debate. He was followed by Chinese, Mongols and the Minyak people in Ganzhou.

Having heard Karma Pakshi’s reputation, the Mongol Khan Mongke invited him to the court in 1256. Karma Pakshi accepted this invitation, which obviously angered Kublai as Karma Pakshi turned down the latter’s request to stay. This is understandable as Mongke was the Mongol Khan at the time and Kublai was merely a prince, which made the former’s invitation more appealing (Sorenson, 2011). At the Mongol court, Karma Pakshi engaged in inter-religious dialogues and debates with other buddhist schools, Taoists, Confucianists and Nestorian Christians (Kapstein, 2000). He also performed blessing to the king, his parents, children and retainers “with a mere glance” (Epstein 38). It was in Mongolia that he earned his title, Pakshi, Mongolian for “teacher" (Sorenson, 2011).

Kublai’s Prosecution

After Mongke Khan died, however, Kublai successfully took control of the Mongol Empire. Due to Karma Pakshi’s refusal to stay in Kublai’s court, Kublai Khan accused the former with siding with his rivalry and ordered to kill Karma Pakshi. Karma Pakshi evaded all the execution with his magic. For instance, the bindings on Karma Pakshi became loose by themselves; poison brew harmed him not even a little; weapons such as a branding iron, knife and spear did no harm to his body (Epstein 41). Karma Pakshi escaped a second assassination attempt by performing magic on a eagle after thrown off a cliff; fording like a yellow goose without sinking in a lake; staying intact in the middle of a fire (Epstein 42).

Because Kublai could not kill Karma Pakshi, he then exiled Karma Pakshi to “Ke’ u chu, a place where no foreigner could live, because of the foul water and very great heat” (Epstein 43). Epstein suggests the possible location in Huailai County under the administration of the prefecture-level city of Zhangjiakou (Epstein 76). Kublai then changed his heart and summoned Karma Pakshi to Shang Du. “For the purpose of trying him, [Kublai] put him into a temple of Spyan ras gzigs without food for seven days and nights, fastened the lock with nails and stationed a guard there.” (Epstein 44) Karma Pakshi brightened the temple with his magic. Kublai Khan came to regret his actions against Karma Pakshi, and eventually approached him, confessing his misdeeds, and requesting Karma Pakshi to teach him (Sorenson, 2011).

Karma Pakshi insisted on going to Tibet, he said “I must go to an unprejudiced country” (Epstein 44). Karma Pakshi left Mongolia and Kublai in 1264, and, eight years later, returned to Tsurpu in Central Tibet. During his travels in the Sino-Tibetan borders, Karma Parks-hi acted as peacemaker and mediated conflicts and wars. He is credited with building a temple to house large image of Śākyamuni, and righted the tilted statue with his magical power. In 1277 Karma Pakshi met Pakpa for the last time near Lhasa. Karma Pakshi passed away in at Tsurpu in 1283; his student Orgyenpa Rinchen Pel (o rgyan pa rin chen dpal, 1229/1230-1309/1312) succeeded him as abbot, and later found and educated the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (karma pa 03 rang 'byung rdo rje, 1284-1339) (Sorenson, 2011).


As Epstein suggests, the Second Karmapa’s biography provides much details of the Tibetan buddhist sectarian alignment with their respective Mongol patrons. In addition, it also includes Karma Pakshi’s travel itineraries of his meditation retreats, monastery restoration, prosecution and teaching in the Sino-Tibetan borders. For instance, wherever Karma Pakshi traveled, he was followed by large crowds of Chinese, Minyaks, Mongols, and Tibetans. It will also be interesting to track his lifelong travel routes as he reached as far north to the Yuan dynasty Upper Capital Shang Du in present day inner Mongolia and as far east near the present day Zhangjiakou by Beijing, and extensively in the Tibetan plateau and the Sino-Tibetan regions.


Epstein, Lawrence. The biography of the second Rgyal-Dbang Karma-Pa, Karma Ba[gamma]si: translation and annotation. Thesis (M.A.)--University of Washington, 1968.

Kapstein, Matthew. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2000.

Manson, Charles E. “An Introduction to the Life of Karma Pakshi (1204/6-1283)”. (Bodleian Library Tibetan subject consultant librarian. Bulletin of Tibetology, 2009): 25-51. http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/bot/pdf/bot_2009_01_02.pdf (accessed October 24, 2016)

Sorensen, Michelle. “The Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi”. The Treasury of Lives: Biographies of Himalayan Religious Masters, 2011. https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Second-Karmapa-Karma-Pakshi/2776 (accessed October 24, 2016)