The Incarnation of the Tai Situpas is clearly predicted by the
great Indian saint Guru Padmasambhava, in his Command seal of
Prophecies - 'Lungten Kagyama'. As the great Jamgon Kongtrul Lodoe
Thaye put it:
"The appearance of the Tai Situpa is like the appearance
of the Buddha; The loving protector of beings, Tai Situpa, is
in essence inseparable from the victorious Karmapa, although he
appears sometimes as the Karmapa's spiritual master and sometimes
as his disciple. Not even a tiny fraction of the lives of the
Karmapa and the Tai Situpa - the spiritual father and son can
be accurately seen or described by ordinary beings. Tai Situpa
had already been full awakened and enlightened but by the force
of his compassion, he continually worked for the welfare of others
for as long as life remains in the universe"
The incarnation of the Tai Situpas span over more than six hundred
years and whose history is integral to the religious and scholastic
development in Eastern Tibet, particularly Kham, where Palpung
his monastic seat was located.
The history goes back prior to the time the title of the Tai Situpa
was bestowed upon this line of tulkus, to the time of the Indian
mahasiddhas, or "great accomplishers," who gained renown
for their sanctity, often accompanied by miracles. According to
the tradition, the Tai Situpa is an emanation of the bodhisattva
Maitreya, the next Buddha, and of Guru Padmasambhava, and has
incarnated as numerous mahasiddhas of Indian and Tibetan origins
who have appeared since the time of the historical Buddha. Dombipa,
King of Magadha and disciple of Virupa, is one such mahasiddha
who is mentioned as one of the early incarnation. He was a saintly
man who practiced tantra secretly for twelve years before he abdicated
in favor of a contemplative life in the wilderness. Denma Tsemang,
one of the twenty-five main disciples of Padmasambhava, was another
incarnation who was noted for his phenomenal memory. Another Tibetan
incarnation of considerable significance was “Marpa Lotsava"
(1012-1097) the great translator who traveled thrice to India
to get the transmissions and empowerments that formed the core
instructions of the Kagyu Lineage.
The incarnation of Drogon Rechen (1148-1218) established the bond
between the Tai Situpas and the Karmapas, a link which exists
to this day. Drogon Rechen was one of the principal students of
the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), and since that time
these two high incarnate lamas have maintained a continuous guru-disciple
interrelationship, which has been instrumental in the continuity
of teachings and practices of the Karma Kagyu Lineage.
Other incarnations as yogis of considerable attainment such as
Yeshe Nyingpo and Rigowa, followed the line of Drogon Rechen.
Yeshe Nyingpo was the disciple of the extraordinary second Karmapa,
Karma Pakshi (1204-1283). Another incarnation with unusual spiritual
power was the Ming minister, Tai Shing Chen the disciple of the
fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa (1384-1415), who traversed the great
seas to invite the mahasiddhi Virupa and the sixteen arahats.
Gyaltsen (1377-1448) was the first incarnation to bear the title
Tai Situ, which was conferred upon him in 1407 by the Chinese
emperor Yong Lo of the Ming Dynasty. The complete title in Chinese
is quite lengthy and is often shortened to Kuang
Ting Tai Situ, which in essence is translated as "far-reaching,
unshakable, great master, holder of the command." Chokyi
Gyaltsen was a close disciple of the fifth Karmapa, and was appointed
by him to the position of head instructor of Karma Gon, the Karmapa's
chief monastery at the time which is located in Eastern Tibet.
Tashi Namgyal (1450-1497), the second Tai Situpa was recognized
and enthroned by the sixth Karmapa, Thongwa Dhondhen (1416-1453),
who later gifted him the Karma Gon Monastery. Karma Gon (c. 1185)
housed many Sanskrit texts and was known for its library as well
as for the exquisite art that embellished it. Until its recent
destruction it provided a unique example of the finest of Tibetan
carving, sculpture, painting, and scholarship. It was the original
seat of the Karmapas, founded by the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa.
The third Situpa, Tashi Paljor (1498-1541), and the fourth Situpa,
Chokyi Gocha (1542-1585), continued the beneficial work at Karma
Gon and other monasteries within its sphere of influence in Eastern
Tibet. Situ Tashi Paljor discovered the eighth Karmapa, Mikyo
Dorje (1507-1554), and was one of his principal teachers. Chokyi
Gyaltsen Palzang (1542 - 1585) the fifth Tai Situpa was distinguished
by the ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje (1556-1603), who bestowed
upon him the Red Crown in acknowledgment of his high level of
spiritual accomplishment. The fifth Situpa built the large Yermoche
Monastery and added several existing ones while the Karmapa was
away in China.
Situ Mipham Chogyal Rabten (1658-1682), the sixth Tai Situpa,
was a yogi credited in the texts with miracles that seem fanciful
to the modern materialist mind, such as hanging prayer beads from
a sunbeam and leaving footprints in rocks. The seventh Tai Situpa,
Mawe Nyima (1683-1698), was the son of the king of Ling and died
at an early age.
Of all the incarnations, the eighth Tai Situpa, Chokyi Jungnes
(1700-1774), may well be the most extraordinary to date as Prof.
Lokesh Chandra has noted that Situ was the last of the great Tibetan
Lotsava. “It is remarkable that when the art of Lotsava
was a matter of history, yet there lingered in Situ the aura of
the Lotsava.” (Autobiographies and Diaries of Situ Panchen,
edited by Lokesh Chandra, 'Sata Pitaka' series, Vol.77, Internatonal
Academy of Indian Culture, New Delhi, 1968. pp5 - 17)
He was a sage of great insight, a Sanskrit scholar, a doctor and
an innovative thanka painter. In 1727, under the patronage of
the Dherge King, Tenpa Tsering, he founded the Palpung monastery,
which subsequently became the seat of the Tai Situpas and the
famous printing press in Dherge and revised the entire Dege edition
of the Kangyur text. The reputation that this edition enjoys for
critical work is a testament to his careful scholarship.
He was a linguist who taught in Sanskrit, Nepalese, Chinese and
Tibetan. He traveled widely to China, Tibet and in Nepal where
he was held in awe by Jayamangla, a pandit from Benares who remarked
that a person of Situ's accomplishment would be honored with seven
parasols in India. His commentary on Tibetan grammar and teaching
on Tibetan poetry was a milestone in his own time and is very
much in use today. He revived the Karma gadri style of thanka
painting and the Zur medical lineage and the Tsurstis tradition
of the astrological knowledge. That these traditions thrive today
is due to his mammoth effort.