A brief history of the Great Encampment

December 12, 2012

The sole purpose of buddhas and bodhisattvas is to benefit others. They all share this goal, but their ways of accomplishing it are different. The Karmapa has said that his way of helping others is to prevent them from falling into the lower realms through their seeing his face and hearing his voice. So his activity has been to travel to as many places as possible. Chinese rulers have invited several of the Karmapas to stay with them in China, but the Karmapa has always refused, saying that his work is to move around and not remain in one place.

If we look at the successive incarnations of the Karmapa, history shows that the first three traveled with only a few followers. Though the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, sometimes had a larger group with him, it was not called the Great Encampment. According to the historian Karma Trinleypa, it was with the Fourth Karmapa, Rolpay Dorje (1340 to 1383), that the tradition of the Garchen began. Rolpay Dorje had been invited for a visit by the Mongolian ruler of the time, and on the way back home, the Karmapa passed through  Eastern Tibet. His sojourn in China had made him famous, and such huge crowds of people came to see him that audiences had to be restricted to one a month for each person. 

Amongst the faithful were those who “offered their head and their body.” This traditional expression means that they gave all they possessed, including their body, to the Karmapa, who was then responsible for their care. Since these devotees now had no place to stay, they followed the Karmapa to Tsurphu where they pitched tents, covering the land from the monastery all the way down to the Dowo river crossing, located near the famous Mahakala image painted on a rock face.

As the years passed, increasing numbers of people joined the Great Encampment, which allowed all the Buddhist sciences to flourish from studying in depth the major treatises to all the arts, such as painting, calligraphy, and metallurgy. At its peak, during the time of the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso (1451-1506), there were 10,000 people living in the Garchen—monks, nuns, female and male lay practitioners, and the old and young. Yaks, horses, donkeys, and other animals were also part of the Great Encampment. Actually,  whatever there was in Tibet could be found at the Garchen. There was even an area of poor people who lived close by. The Encampment was filled with life in all its diversity. The leader was usually a powerful monk, but sometimes a formidable woman arrived and she became the head. One was known as Wangchuk Kyimo, the Delightful One of Great Power.

The Eighth Karmapa reduced the size of the Great Encampment, but it survived to the time of the Tenth Karmapa, Chöying Dorje (1604 to 1674). Then Mongolian and Tibetan armies destroyed the Great Encampment, killing or capturing over six thousand monks and nuns while the Karmapa was compelled to escape on foot. This forcibly shut the gates of the Great Encampment. The next four Karmapas had to stay at Tsurphu, and the Fifteenth was allowed to travel with a small group. Similarly, the Sixteenth Karmapa was accompanied by a limited entourage when he journeyed to Palpung, Pangphuk, Pukje and other monasteries in Eastern Tibet. In this way, Tsurphu became the main residence of all the Karmapas from the Eleventh through the Seventeenth.

2012.12.12 - 30th Kagyu Monlam - Garchen history 嘎千大營地簡史


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