The Fifth Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa (1384-1415)


THE FIFTH GYALWA KARMAPA, Dezhin Shegpa, was heard reciting mantras and the Sanskrit alphabet whilst in his mother's womb. He was the wonder child of yogin parents. He received the full transmissions of his lineage and soon completed his traditional training.

At the age of 22, he received a moving invitation from Emperor Yung Lo (also known as Ch'eng-Tsu), who had had a vision of him as Avalokiteshvara. It took three years for him to reach the imperial palace, where he was warmly received by ten thousand monks. The combination of Yung Lo's devotion and the Karmapa's spirituality produced some extraordinary events: a hundred days of miracles that on the order of the emperor were recorded for posterity as silk paintings with a commentary in five languages. Following this, Dezhin Shegpa made a pilgrimage to the famous Wu-tai Shan holy mountains, as the previous two Karmapas had done, to visit his monasteries there.

The Fifth Karmapa saved Tibet from bloody war on several occasions by dissuading the emperor from imposing a single religious system there and by pointing out the value of alternative systems, suited to different mentalities. The emperor himself soon became an accomplished bodhisattva and one day, in purity of vision, saw the celestial vajra crown above his guru's head. So that all beings might benefit from seeing something of this transcendent aspect of the Karmapa,

he had a physical replica of it made, presented it to his guru and requested him to wear it on special occasions to bring liberation to those who saw it. This was the origin of the Vajra Crown ceremony.


In 1408, Dezhin Shegpa set out for Tibet. There he supervised the reconstruction of Tsurphu, damaged by an earthquake, and stimulated the Buddha-Dharma. He spent three years in contemplative retreat. Realizing that he would die at a young age, he left indications of his future rebirth and died at 31. The bones left in the ashes of his funeral pyre bore naturally-formed images of many Buddhas.


Text reprinted with permission of Altea Publishing from Karmapa, by Ken Holmes. Copyright 1995 by Altea Publishing.