The Tsurphu Monastery

Tsurphu Monastery was founded in 1189 by the first  Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193). It was rebuilt in 1263 by the II Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204-1283). It is the main monastery of the Kamtsang Kagyu Tradition, which is one of the four major Dagpo Kagyu lineages deriving from direct disciples of Gampopa (1079-1153). Tsurphu has been the traditional seat of the Activity of the Karmapas. It lies to the northwest of Lhasa at Tolung.

From the II up to the IV Karmapas, each visited China and Mongolia and taught the Mongol Emperors of China. They founded numerous monasteries in North China and what the Manchus many centuries later called "Inner Mongolia." The main Kagyu Lineagemonastery of Mongolia, Khochiti Khambo, located in the Shilinggol District of Inner Mongolia, was a branch of Tsurphu. It flourished until 1949, when the Chinese communist army destroyed it.

The II through the IV Karmapas also established many monasteries in Minyag. Minyag had been the great Buddhist Tangut kingdom known as Hsi-hsia (Xixia) in Chinese. It spanned the region between the northeastern quarters of the Tibetan northeastern province of Amdo to Inner Mongolia. The Mongol ruler Chingis Khan conquered it in 1227. Many of the people migrated to the southeastern Tibetan province of Kham, where they named their area also Minyag. As the date of this migration is uncertain, it is also uncertain whether the monasteries founded by the Karmapas were in the original Minyag homeland, in the Minyag area of Kham, or in both.

The III Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339), wrote an extensive commentary to the Kalachakra Tantra. The Tsurphu lineage of astronomy and astrology developed from it. Each year, the monastery prepared and published the Tsurphu calendar and almanac, calculated according to this tradition.

The V Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa (1384-1415), was invited to China and taught the Chinese Ming Emperor, Yunglo. In 1407, the Emperor presented him with a Black Hat, in accordance with an auspicious dream. Although the Mongol emperors of China had presented his predecessors with black hats, the Black Hat Ceremony of the Karmapas based itself on this black hat presented to the V Karmapa. Thereafter, the ceremony was performed regularly at Tsurphu.

Tsurphu has upheld the tradition of Gampopa, which combined the two streams of the Mahamudra teachings with the Kadam teachings of the Lam Rim. Thus, the traditional course of study and practice at Tsurphu has included both Sutra and Tantra, with special emphasis on tantric ritual, art, music, and meditation. Five levels of degrees were awarded, with the highest being Dorje Lobpon (Tantric Teacher).

Many of the Minyag people who had relocated in Kham later moved further south and settled in Sikkim. The modern day Sikkimese is descendents of the Minyag people who intermarried with the local Lepcha population. Due to this Minyag influence, Sikkim became mostly of the Kagyu Lineage, in association with Tsurphu.

The first Chogyel, or Dharma King of Sikkim, Phuntsok Namgyel (b. 1604), of Minyag ancestry, was chosen by the settlers from Tibet as both the temporal and spiritual leader of Sikkim. Ralang Monastery, the first Kamtsang Kagyu monastery in Sikkim, was built by the fourth Chogyel in 1730. The second Kagyu monastery built was Rumtek, in 1740.

In the mid twentieth century, the XI Tai Situpa Rinpoche, Pema Wangchug Gyelpo, established an institute for Buddhist textual study at Palpung Monastery in Dergey, Kham. The first Tai Situpa Rinpoche, Chokyi Gyeltsen (1377-1448), had been a disciple of the V Karmapa, and the VIII Tai Situpa Rinpoche, Chokyi Jungney (1700-1774), had founded Palpung in 1727. The XI Tai Situpa Rinpoche then requested the XVI Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpay Dorje  (1924-1981), to establish a similar institute of study at Tsurphu.

Subsequent to this request, the Karmapa received a vision of the great Nyingma translator Vimalamitra, who had introduced the Dzogchen Lineage from India to Tibet. In this vision, Vimalamitra also advised the Karmapa to establish a center where the teachings could be properly transmitted and studied. If this could be done, Vimalamitra promised he would emanate among its teachers and students for thirteen lifetimes.

The XVI Karmapa was in the process of preparing to found such an institute at Tsurphu when the Chinese invasion occurred. In 1959, he escaped to Sikkim, choosing Rumtek Monastery to be his seat in exile. First, the tantric rituals of Tsurphu were restarted. Then, the monastery was rebuilt in 1969, and Karma Manjushri House was founded for the young monks’ study. Finally, in 1980, the Karma Sri Nalanda Institute for Buddhist Studies was constructed as a branch of Rumtek to fulfill the requests of the previous Tai Situpa and Vimalamitra. In the present times, the Kagyu monasteries in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim send two monks each to train at this institute in the Sutra teachings through the medium of debate.

(Text extracted from the Web page www.tsurphu.org and reviewed by Trikaya)