Himalayan Art Resources

Teacher: Karmapa, Karma Pakshi Biography

Karma Pakshi Page

The Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204-1283)

The Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (karma pa 02 karma pakshi) was born in Sato ki le tsag (sa stod dkyil le tsag), in the Derge (sde dge) district of Khams. His father was Gawang Tsurtsa Prangta (rgya dbang tshur tsha sprang thar) and his mother was Sengzang Mangki (seng bzang mang skyid). They were a noble family of yoga practitioners believed to be descended from King Trisong Deutsen (khri srong lde'u btsan, 790-844).

Karma Pakshi is remembered as a remarkable child, able to read and write from the age of five or six, and was said to have the knowledge of an enlightened being. Through his extensive studies, by the age of ten he had learned the Buddhist canon. At the age of eleven, he took initiation as Chokyi Lama (chos kyi bla ma); some sources have his ordination name as Chozin (chos 'dzin), while other sources have that as the name he was given at birth. He received lineage transmissions from Lama Pomdragpa Sonam Dorje (bla ma spom brag pa bsod nams rdo rje, 1170-1249).

Lama Pomdragpa soon recognized the young man as the incarnation of the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (karma pa 01 dus gsum mkhyen pa, 1110-1193). Although Pomdragpa had not received teachings from the First Karmapa, he was a disciple of the Karmapa's student, Sanggye Rechenpa Peldrag (1148-1218). In addition to giving him teachings, Pomdragpa also directed his disciple to go into meditation retreat.

Among his other important teachers were two Nyingma lamas from Katog 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.

While spending much of his early life in retreat, during the second part of his life, Karma Pakshi moved frequently due to local conflicts and wars. He traveled throughout Tibet, mainly in the border regions between eastern Tibet and China. He was active in restoring monasteries established by the First Karmapa as well as building new ones. In 1247, he travelled to Tsurpu in Tolung, north of Lhasa (stod lung mtshur phu), where he remained for several years.

Karma Pakshi had developed a substantial reputation as a worker of miracles, and while residing at Tsurpu, he received an invitation from Khubilai Khan. At this point, Khubilai was simply a nephew of the Mongol head, Ododei, son of Ghengis, and the younger brother of the Khaghan, the head of the Mongolian Empire. Rapid successions following Ghengis Khan's death in 1227 had left numerous factions of the family vying for power. In the same year he sent for Karma Pakshi, Khubilai had taken the two heirs of the Sakya Khon family, Chogyal Pagpa Lodro Gyaltsen (chos rgyal 'phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1235-1280) and Channa Dorje (phyag na rdo rje, d. 1267) from the camp of Ododei's son, Koden, who likely had died that same year. Upon Ododei's death in 1241, his other son, Guyug, was made Khaghan; upon Guyug's death, the Khanate passed to Khubilai's elder brother, Mongke (1209-1259).

The Second Karmapa met Khubilai at Rongyul Serto (rong yul gser stod), which Richardson speculated was near Dartsedo, and stayed with him less than five years before traveling around the Sino-Tibetan border regions, attracting large crowds wherever he went. Although he refused Khubilai's request to return to his court, in 1255 or 1256 he accepted an invitation from Mongke and went to the palace of Sira Ordo, near Karakorum. It was not an unreasonable move on Karma Pakshi's part; Khubilai at his point had no obvious claim to the throne, making Mongke a far more appealing donor. Chogyal Pagpa remained with Khubilai, and when Mongke died several years later, he was thus in position to rise in power with his sponsor when Khubilai conquered China and initiated the Yuan Dynasty.

On his journey to meet with Mongke, Karma Pakshi established the Trulnang Tulpa'i Lhakhang ('phrul snang sprul pa'i lha khang). While at Mongke's court, he grew to appreciate the Mongol principle of religious tolerance. He also participated in inter-religious and philosophical dialogues and debates with other Buddhist communities, as well as Daoists, Confucianists and Nestorian Christians.

It was in Mongolia that he earned his title, Pakshi, Mongolian for 'teacher'.

When Khubilai succeeded in taking control of the Mongolian Empire, he accused Karma Pakshi of siding with his rival; Khubilai exiled him and put some of his followers to death. Traditional sources suggest that this situation was a result of Khubilai's disappointment in Karma Pakshi's refusal to remain at his court or to return when invited back; it is also thought that it was Karma Pakshi's skill in magic that protected him and the Kagyu tradition from greater difficulties. Although he was later reconciled with his former sponsor, the Kagyu never attained the level of influence that the Sakya enjoyed. Karma Pakshi left Mongolia in 1264, and, eight years later, returned to Tsurpu. He is credited with building a temple to house large image of Shakyamuni, which was said to have originally come from Nalanda and was carried off during a Mongolian raid.

Karma Pakshi was an author of both exoteric and esoteric texts; however, few works have survived. As Matthew Kapstein has pointed out, he often wrote under the pen name 'Rangjung Dorje,' which is also the name of the Third Karmapa (rang byung rdo rje, 1284-1339); this has led to considerable confusion, as well as possible contemporary mis-attributions of his work to that of the third Karmapa. Aside from his autobiographies, the Limitless Ocean Cycle (rgya mtsho mtha' yas kyi skor) is perhaps the key extant work of Karma Pakshi, one that Kapstein describes as 'an elaborate systematization of the Katog tradition of teaching.'

His most renowned students were Orgyenpa Rinchen Pel (o rgyan pa rin chen dpal, 1229/1230-1309/1312), who later found his reincarnation; Tashi Dragpa (bkra shis grags pa, 1200-1282), sometimes considered a pre-incarnation of the Zhwamar line of incarnations; the First Gangkar Lama, Dragpai Pel (gangs dkar bla ma 01 grags pa'i dpal, b. 1260) and Dengom (ldan sgom), who built the Lhakhang Chenmo at Tsurpu. The Blue Annals mentions Jamyang Semgyelwa Yeshe (byang sems rgyal ba ye shes, b. 1257), who became a student of Karma Pakshi's against his father?s will; Karma Pakshi not only taught him, but also provided for his mundane necessities.

Karma Pakshi passed away at Tsurpu in 1283; his student Orgyenpa succeeded him as abbot, and later found and educated the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (karma pa 03 rang 'byung rdo rje, 1284-1339).

Name Variants: Chodzin; Chokyi Lama; Karma Paksi; Karmapa 02 Karma Pakshi; Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi


Dpa' bo gtsug lag phreng ba. 2003. Chos 'byung mkhas pa'i dga' ston.

Dung dkar blo bzang 'phrin las. 2002. Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. Beijing: Krung go'i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, pp. 30-31.

Kapstein, Matthew T. 2000. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation and Memory. New York: Oxford UP.

Karma Pakshi. 1978. Autobiographical Writings of the Second Karmapa Karma Pakshi and a work called Spyi Lan Ring mo ? a defence of the Bka' brgyud pa teachings addressed to G.yag sde Pa? chen. Gangtok: Gonpo Tseten.

Jackson, David. 2009. 'The Black Hats of the Karmapas.' In Patron and Painter; Situ Pa?chen and the Revival of the Encampments Style, pp. 39-69. New York: Rubin Museum of Art.

Mkha' spyod dbang po. 1978. Karma pa chen po'i rnam thar bsam yas lha'i rnga chen. In The collected writings (gsun 'bum) of the second zwa-dmar mkha'-spyod-dban-po, vol. 2, pp. 1-87. Gangtok: Gonpo Tseten.

Richardson, Hugh. 1958-1959. 'The Karma-pa Sect.' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 3 and 4: 139-164, no. 1 and 2, pp. 1-18.

Roerich, George, trans. 1996. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.

Si tu Pa? chen Chos kyi 'byung gnas and 'Be lo Tshe dbang kun khyab. 1972. History of the Karma Bka' brgyud pa Sect. New Delhi: D. Gyeltsen & Kesang Legshay, vol 1, pp. 75-159.

Tucci, Giuseppe. 1949. Tibetan Painted Scrolls. Rome: La Libreria dello Stato.

Van der Kuijp, Leonard. 1995. 'Baghsi' and Baghsi-s in Tibetan Historical, Biographical and Lexicographical Texts.' Central Asiatic Journal, vol. 39, pp. 275-302.

Ye shes rdo rje, et al. 1996-2000. Gangs can mkhas dbang rim byon gyi rnam thar mdor bsdus. Volume 2, 59-61. Peking: krung go'i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang. (TBRC W25268.)

Michelle Sorensen, April 2011 [Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. August 2013].