The Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje

b.1284 - d.1339
Name Variants: Karmapa 03 Rangjung Dorje; Rangjung Dorje; Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje
The Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (karma pa 03 rang byung rdo rje) was born in 1284, on the eighth day of the first month of the wood-monkey year, in Tsa Pugang Zhurmo (tsa phu gangs zhur mo) His father, named Chopel (chos dpal), is described as a Nyingma practitioner; he is also said to have bestowed Zhije teachings on his son.
While still a young child his parents brought him on pilgrimage in Tsang, visiting, among other things, the famous sandalwood image of Avalokiteśvara in Kyirong (skyid rong). At the age of five he received lay vows and numerous tantric initiations from Orgyenpa Rinchen Pel (o rgyan pa rin chen dpal, 1229-1309) at his monastery of Butrasang (sbud tra sang). According to tradition, Orgyenpa is said to have identified the youth as the reincarnation of his teacher, the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (karma pa 02 karma pakshi, 1203/04-1283), and to have declared "As my guru's esoteric name was Rangjung Dorje, I will name you that." Other, earlier sources, however, have it that the name Rangjung Dorje was given to the boy by Kunden Sherab (kun ldan shes rab, d.u.), who gave him his novice vows. Scholars have suggested that it was in fact Rangjung Dorje himself who made the assertion that he was the reincarnation of Karma Pakshi, whom he further identified as the rebirth of Dusum Khyenpa (dus gsum mkhyen pa, 1110-1193), to whom he gave the titles Second and First Karmapas, respectively.
Before his tenth birthday Rangjung Dorje is said to have had visions of protectors -- in some tellings Mahākāla -- who told him to go to Tsurpu (mtshur phu), the seat of the previous Karmapas. There he received teachings on various topics including Kālacakra and Chod from Sherab Pel (shes rab dpal, d.u.), Nyenre Gendun Bum (gnyan ras dge 'dun 'bum, d.u.), and Namtsowa Mikyo Dorje (gnam mtsho ba mi bskyod rdo rje, d.u.).
In 1301, at the age of eighteen, he received complete ordination from Zhonnu Jangchub (gzhon nu byang chub), acting as abbot, and Gendun Rinchen (dge 'dun rin chen), acting as disciplinarian. He studied the five standard topics of a monastic curriculum -- Pramāṇa, Prajñāpāramitā, Madhyamaka, Abhidharmakośa, and Vinaya -- with Shakya Zhonnu, an abbot of Sangpu (gsang phu) Monastery. He received the complete teachings of Padampa Sanggye (pha dam pa sangs rgyas, d. c.1117) and Orgyenpa from Nyedo Kunga Dondrub (snye mdo kun dga' don grub, b. 1268), and instructions in the Karma Kagyu tradition from Lama Dzogden Namtso (bla ma rdzogs ldan gnam mtsho, d.u.).

He then went to Karma Gon (karma dgon) in Kham, the monastery founded by the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (karma pa 01 dus gsum mkhyen pa 1110-1193), in 1147. He established the hermitage of Lhateng (lha stengs), and visited Tsawa Gang (tsha ba sgang).

Back at U he donated a parasol to the Jo statue in the Jokhang, and briefly traveled to Kongpo to settle a dispute. At Tsurpu he constructed a temple with a gilded roof, and established the Dechen Teng (bde chen stengs) hermitage at Druzhi (gru bzhi). He continued his education, receiving Kālacakra teachings numerous tantric initiations from Kunga Dondrub; medical instruction from Bare (sba ras), Guhyasamāja and other tantric traditions from Tsultrim Rinchen (tshul khrims rin chen, d.u.); and Dzogchen Nyingtik (rdzogs chen snying thig) from Rigdzin Kumārāja (1266-1343) and, separately, from Rikhor Repa (ri khor ras pa, d.u.).

He then went again to Kongpo, where he remained for three years. He established the Nakpu Hermitage (nag phu ri khrod) and several other institutions, and practiced in the mountains.

In 1326 Rangjung Dorje returned to U, where he gave teachings and mediated a dispute between the Tselpa and Karma Kagyu communities.

He then went east again, building an iron bridge over the Sokchu (sog chu; a left-bank tributary of the Salween) to the east of Karma Gon and then, going down to Kongpo, entering retreat at Nakpu.

At some point he met with Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen (dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1292-1361), a connection that later historians, namely Jamgon Kongtrul ('jam mgon kong sprul, 1813-1899) used to credit Rangjung Dorje with espousing the zhentong (gzhan stong) view.

Rangjung Dorje returned to U in 1331, and that year he received an invitation from the Yuan Emperor Toq Temur (r. 1328-1332) to visit the Imperial capital of Dadu, modern-day Beijing. He arrived there on November 6, 1332. Toq Temur died while the Karmapa was en route, and his successor, Irinchinbal, died while the Karmapa was in the capital. He mediated a dispute over the succession, and was present when Toghan Temur (r. 1333-1370) was enthroned in Shangdu. While in the capital he gave the new emperor religious instruction and he secured the titles situ (司徒) and guoshi (國師) for his student Kunga Dorje (kun dga' rdo rje, 1309-1364), the abbot of Tsel Gungtang (tshal gung thang). He also secured a tax exemption for Tsurpu. He left in 1334, passing through Wutai Shan, Minyak and Markham, and arrived in Tsurpu the following year. He spent the winter of that year at Samye. Having received permission to leave China only after having promised to return in two years, not long after he had arrived in Tibet he was forced to return to China, leaving in 1336 and arriving in Dadu in 1337.

In 1338, at an assembly of officials, he is said to have declared "I, a yogin, am like a cloud. May all those who wish to grasp the meaning of my teachings do so quickly." He passed away less than a year later, in 1339, on the fifth day of the fifth month of the rabbit year.

The Third Karmapa composed widely, on diverse topics such as Doha, scriptural commentaries, astrology, Chod, and biography. Several of his works on Mahāmudrā, such as the famous Prayer to the Definitive Meaning of Mahāmudrā (nges don phyag rgya chen po'i smon lam) have remained classics. Another famous work is the Profound Inner Meaning (zab mo nang don), a commentary on the Annutarayoga tantras, written in 1322 at Dechen Teng.

Among his prominent disciples were the First Zhamarpa, Drakpa Sengge (zhwa dmar 01 grags pa seng+ge, 1283-1349), and Longchenpa Drime Ozer (klong chen rab 'byams pa dri med 'od zer, 1308-1364).


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Schaeffer, Kurtis. 1995. "The Enlightened Heart of Buddhahood: A Study and Translation of the Third Karmapa Rang byung rdo rje's Work on Tathāgatagarbha, the De bzhin gshegs pa'i snying po gtan la dbab pa." M.A. thesis, University of Washington.

Alexander Gardner
June 2011


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