The Fifth Karma-pa

The Fifth Karma-pa, (1384~1415), De-Bzhin gShegs-pa or Helima (Halima) (Chin.: 哈立麻), is the reincarnated head of the Black –Hat (Zwa-nag) Karmapas. The fifth Karma-pa was invited by Yongle emperor (Zhu Di, 朱棣) of the Ming dynasty in 1407, to perform a mass of universal salvation (pudu dazhai) at Linggu Monastery in honor of the Yongle emperor’s late father, the Hongwu emperor, and his late putative mother, the Empress Ma. The Fifth Karma-pa received a title “Rulai dabao fawang xitian dashan zizai fo” (Chin.:如來大寳法王西天大善自在佛; Tathagata, Great and Precious Dharma King, Great Goodness of the Western Heaven, Self-Abiding Buddha) during his stay in Nanjing.

What is worth noting is that the title “dabao fawang” (Chin.: 大寳法王) was initially bestowed by Mongol’s Yuan court to Phags-pa (1235-1280), a member of the Sakya sect of Buddhism. That two distinct figures who represent two sectarian traditions in Tibet received the same imperial title from Yuan and Ming dynasty respectively suggests that the title “dabao fawang” was an emblem of importance of Tibetan Buddhism for both Yuan and Ming dynasties in terms of legitimacy. The Yongle emperor’s uncertain origin and his usurping the power made it necessary for him to employ Tibetan Buddhism (then, called Buddhism without any qualifications) for the purpose of legitimacy. Sources from both Tibetan and Chinese sides glorify, or rather, apotheosize the Fifth Karma-pa and his visit. The Fifth Karma-pa, at a matter of fact, was destined to perform the magical powers from the Tibetan’s perspective, because he was the fifth exponent of a lineage of lamas especially noted for their ecstatic visions and magical powers. A silk handscroll that was first kept in Tsurphu Monastery and transferred to Norbulingkha in Lhasa afterwards illustrates the Fifth Karma-pa’s visit to Nanjing. By adding glory to the emperor and the Fifth Karma-pa, the surreal, magical signs that were described in historical records in both China and Tibet were translated into a non-Buddhist idiom and made to serve the legitimation of imperial power.

However, it would be oversimplified to suggest that the Fifth Karma-pa’s visit to Nanking, the capital of Ming dynasty and Mt. Wutai afterwards was merely a religious activity. During the early Ming dynasty, the Ming government might have been trying to obtain horses in Khams, fighting Tibetan tribes in A-mdo and drawing support from Tibetan Buddhism in a hope of legitimizing the newly usurped throne (in the case of Yongle emperor, particularly.) These aspects of the visit of The Fifth Karma-pa and the role of Tibetan Buddhism in early Ming dynasty deserve more attention.

  • Berger, Patricia, Miracles in Nanjing: An Imperial Record of the Fifth Karmapa’s Visit to the Chinese Capital, Cultural Intersections in Later Chinese Buddhism, UH.P. 200
  • Sperling, Elliot, The 5th Karma-pa and Some Aspects of the Relationship Between Tibet and Early Ming, Tibetan Studies in honor of High Richardson: Proceedings of the International Seminar of Tibetan Studies, Oxford 1979, Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. & Did the Early Ming Emperors Attempt to Implement A “Divide and Rule” Policy in Tibet?, Contributions on Tibetan Language, History and Culture, Wien, 1983 & Si-tu Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan and the Ming Court, Lungta 13, Winter 2000
  • Silk, Jonathan A, Notes on the History of the Yongle Kanjur, Suhrllekhah: Festgabe für Helmut Eimer. Swisttal-Odendorf: Indica et Tiebtica Verlag, 1996

Entry by Lan Wu, 2/18/ 07