Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism

The Third Karmapa and the Invention of a Tradition
By Ruth Gamble
Oxford University Press 2018
pp. 344
ISBN-10 9780190690779

Review by Alex Studholme

reincarnation tibetan buddhismThe Tibetan tulku system is commonly held to have its origins in the life of the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi. Born in 1204, he was identified as the reincarnation of the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, before inheriting the three monasteries founded by the latter and gaining power and prestige for his office via the patronage of the Mongolian court. But, in her brilliant survey and analysis of this phenomenon, Ruth Gamble argues that it was really the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, born in 1284, who definitively established the tradition. Gamble shows how Rangjung Dorje, through his writing and activity, created an institution that was built to last, the template for all the many hundreds of major and minor tulku hierarchs to come: in a nutshell, while a second lama counts as a rebirth, a third lama makes a lineage.

Rangjung Dorje’s biographies include all the elements of what would become the standard tulku narrative. His birth, in a remote valley in southern Tibet, is predicted by his predecessor. A precocious child, he first tells others about his past lives when he is three. Aged five, his recognition and enthronement as Karmapa is conducted by a charismatic yogin called Orgyenpa, whom Karma Pakshi had previously asked to be his teacher in his next life, giving him his hat as a guarantee. After Rangjung Dorje greets Orgyenpa with the question, “Didn’t I give you my hat?”, the attendant crowd giggles as his tiny head is dwarfed by the famous black crown.

Gamble shows how Rangjung Dorje builds on accepted Buddhist literary tropes to bolster the Karmapa legend and to prioritise the idea of a lama as “rebirth”, instead of the previously preferred category of “emanation”. In addition to an anthology of past lives of the Buddha, he compiles a collection of his own past incarnations. Like the Buddha, he descends to earth from the Tushita heaven. Before entering his mother’s womb, he propels his consciousness into the corpse of a little boy. When he is born, he realizes he can speak, but chooses to remain silent. Growing up, he gives the impression of normality, whilst “inside [he] knew all appearances were dreamlike”.

The modern reader may be inclined to take much of this with a pinch of salt. As Gamble points out, the provenance of some of these accounts is dubious, the hand of revisionism is often apparent and different versions of events do not always tally. There is, for instance, no record of the prediction of Rangjung Dorje’s birth having been written before the event itself; later biographies record him actually speaking at his birth and, aged three, of fashioning his own homemade black crown; curiously, the past lives of one Karmapa do not always match the past lives recorded by another.

But, perhaps one should beware, as it were, of throwing the baby – or the genuine reincarnated lama – out with the bathwater. It is not as if Rangjung Dorje simply came from the right kind of family, as has since often been the case with other tulkus. His relationship with Karma Pakshi’s family, who retained control of the main Karma Kagyu monastery of Tsurpu, comes across as cool and distant. He was the son of an itinerant potter – a fact sometimes airbrushed out in later accounts – about as low down the social order as one could get. It is, at the very least, uncanny that a boy taken from this obscure background should immediately thrive in isolated hermetic settings and so unerringly turn out to be such a spiritual genius. 

In any case, Gamble is not preoccupied with judgments of this kind. Her main concern is to demonstrate how Rangjung Dorje constructed a religious edifice – the Karmapa lineage – that might safeguard the dharma in very unstable times: reincarnation is just one aspect, albeit an important one, of this crucial project. We learn of Rangjung Dorje’s many years spent in retreat, his prolific writing career and widespread teaching activity. He helps to sacralize the history and geography of Tibet, promoting the figures of Avalokiteshvara and Padmasambhava, and identifying the landscape with his own internal apprehension of the mandala of Cakrasamvara, to the extent of interpreting earthquakes as violent realignments within his subtle body.

The richest part of Gamble’s book is her extended treatment of Rangjung Dorje’s inner life, as expressed in his visions and songs of realization. His connection with the Indian mahasiddha Saraha was especially formative. “Saraha showed me that my own mind was the sacred guru,” he wrote, later, of an ultra-vivid dream he had at the age of twelve. Incidentally, we also read of a visionary encounter with the early Dzogchen master Vimalamitra, leading to what he said was “an extremely clear understanding of the Great Completion”. This recalls the conversation of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu with the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpai Dorje in Rome in 1975, when Rinpoche recounted “how extremely kind” both the 2nd and the 3rd Karmapas had been to the Dzogchen teaching.

Ultimately, Gamble’s sympathetic and thought-provoking study leaves one pondering the impressive integrity of the 3rd Karmapa and, more generally, the idiosyncrasies of Buddhism’s successful integration into Tibetan culture. Like his predecessor, the 3rd Karmapa gained considerable support from the Mongol court, but bridled against his enforced sojourns there, writing witheringly of its decadence and corruption. In some of his songs, calling upon his guru Orgyenpa, he presents himself not as a spiritual monarch, but as a “lazy beggar” yogin, in the mould of the Karma Kagyu sect’s great exemplar Milarepa.

Gamble disputes any suggestion that the claims of reincarnation were a cynical ploy to gain worldly power. Despite all the majesty and regalia, Rangjung Dorje was a monk, who appeared wholly dedicated to bringing the Tibetan people to the dharma. “This was not a social strategy,” she concludes, “it was a religious strategy.”

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