The Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, Master of Mahamudra

Translated by Ruth Gamble
Lives of the Masters Series
Shambhala Publications, 2020

Review by Andy Lukianowicz

Emptiness is Form

third karmapa rangjung dorjeThis book, which recounts the life [or lives?] and times of the “Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, Master of Mahamudra” and forms part of the excellent Lives of the Masters series published by Shambala, was presented by its author Dr Ruth Gamble [as was the biography, in the same series, of “Karmapa II Karma Pakshi” by its author Charles Manson] in a series of talks produced by Shang Shung Institute UK. Always interested in the remarkable Karma Pakshi, Dr Gamble’s engaging talk persuaded me to read Rangjung Dorje’s biography as I had done Karma Pakshi’s, and it recounts an equally remarkable life. The book on Karma Pakshi, “The Second Karmapa Karma Pakshi”, and Dr Gamble’s other book on Rangjung Dorje, “Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism”, have been reviewed already in the Mirror.

In it, Dr Gamble has written what in some ways is a ‘total’ account of the Third Karmapa Rangjung  Dorje’s life, times and teachings, with a seamless overview of the spiritual, social, political, sociological and psychological situation in that historical period of Tibet, beset with feuds between Kagyus and Sakyas [mainly in terms of temporal power, but also doctrinally on relying on more esoteric or exoteric teachings, respectively] and between warring Khans, in which his life was situated, alongside his own reactions to and reflections on it, with her own reflections on its relevance to conditions in her [our] own time. She also considers his enormous influence and spiritual charisma and the religious legacy he bequeathed on Tibetan Buddhism in the centuries that followed, due to his ‘invention’ of the reincarnation system, dealt with in greater detail in her previous book on Rangjung Dorje, “Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism”. 

Divided in two parts, the first part of the book draws on biographical works by and about Rangjung Dorje, in traditional manner treating his birth, education, retreats, teaching activities [he may have taught Dolpopa, major Jonangpa propagator of the Shentong teachings on emptiness counter to the quasi-nihilistically oriented Rangtong teachings of the Gelugpas; although Rangjung Dorje’s focus of interest seems rather to have been the primacy of the guru-disciple relationship] and death and rebirth [and retroactive initiator of the Karmapa reincarnation lineage]. 

No ‘prisoner of Shangri-La’, to use Donald Lopez’s useful term, Dr Gamble discusses Rangjung Dorje’s birth in abject poverty [the plight on today’s refugees immediately springs to mind] after two previous Karmapa incarnations born into rich and powerful families; she recounts his ‘difficult’ relationship with Karma Pakshi’s family heirs, owners of the Karmapa monasteries/fortresses and estates, which they did not even allow him to enter. However I cannot help but think that his social extraction and provenance may have helped him not to succumb to the ‘multiplying cliffs of depravity’ of the Mongol courts [a euphemism for military encampments?] where he spent too many years and ended his life, a prisoner to the Khan’s obsession with esoteric teachings and magical powers. [Although Dr Gamble also usefully adds a converse, more upbeat interpretation, in terms of his translife as reincarnation connecting past and future Karmapa hierarchs, as a ‘great escape’].

In terms of his teachings, on all aspects and genres of the Buddhist teachings, these are presented in translations in the second part of Dr Gamble’s book, treating his Liberation Story, his dreams of the Indian mahasiddha Saraha, his dreams and visions as sources of some of his teachings [like our own master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche], his commentaries on the tantric systems of Chakrasamvara and Kalachakra, his recommendation to practitioners to undertake solitary mountain retreat, his warnings against the traps of samsara, his recounting of Jataka birth stories, his teachings on the confluence of Madhyamika, Mahamudra and Maha Ati, the three teachings that most influenced his life; Dr Gamble also speculates that this may qualify him as a precursor of the nineteenth century Rime movement], on practices pertaining to mind and wind, and many others, many in song form. Also in a footnote she refers us for any omissions in her own book to Brunnholzi’s publications on Ranjung Dorje’s numerous writings, and Elizabeth Callahan’s translation of his important doctrinal book The Profound Inner Principles’; Dr Gamble’s lively translation of his Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer adds some fresh insights to the many other existing translations; she omits these as tradition dictates they be studied after receiving the related empowerments and transmissions.

Rangjung Dorje’s was an era of war, earthquakes, imperialist invasions and incursions, plague and [sometimes man-induced] famine – much like our own, all of which makes his reflections, both aspirational and socially critical, on religion, temporal power, doctrine, relations to non human powerful entities and powers, not to mention relations with other people including the less socially advantaged, witness his choice of a Jataka tale featuring Buddha taking birth as a low caste woman dancer, and the great and deep need to engage in true and sincere spiritual practice with clarity, generosity and humility, all the more apposite in our time. Thank you, Dr Gamble, for rendering this book so relevant, or rather necessary, to our own catastrophic time. 


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