5th Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa


When the Fifth Karmapa was in his early 20s, he accepted an invitation from the ruler of Ming-dynasty China, Yongle Emperor, to travel to China, teach at the imperial court and perform funeral services for the emperor’s deceased parents. Though his status as the emperor’s lama granted Deshin Shegpa enormous influence and power, he repeatedly declined to exercise that power to promote his own sect. The Yuan dynasty had sent military forces to Tibet with the consent or encouragement of Tibetan religious figures, as would the Qing dynasty emperors centuries later.

But when the Fifth Karmapa was presented with a proposal by Yongle Emperor to send military forces to curtail other sects’ activities in Tibet and support the Karma Kagyu, Deshin Shegpa reportedly replied that a variety of teaching traditions were needed in Tibet, to suit the variety of disciples’ predispositions and needs, and that each sect made a distinct contribution. In this way, he was able to avert a planned invasion of Tibet by the Ming emperor. Due to the Fifth Karmapa’s truly enlightened perspective and his deft response to the emperor’s ambitions, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was dissuaded from pursuing imperial designs on Tibet. The fact that, for the three centuries of Ming rule, Tibet was able to pursue its religious and secular affairs free of external interference was a lasting contribution of the Fifth Karmapa, and may be counted among his major enlightened activities.