Tsurpu monastery is located about 1-1,5 hours away from Lhasa. It is one of the most important monastic centers in Tibet. Tsurpu is the seat of Karmapa, the leader of Kagyu or Black Hat school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tsurpu Monastery was founded in 1189 by the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, who was born in the eastern province of Kham region. He came to Central Tibet to study and at the age of thirty became a disciple of Gampopa. He returned to Kham and founded the monastery from which the Karma Kagyu order derived its name. Only towards the end of his life he return to Central Tibet to found Tsurpu. Shortly before he died he said that he would be reborn in Tibet and gave indications as to how he could be found. He was became the first lama to introduce the unique Tibetan custom of lines of recognised “Tulku” a practice that eventually became popular with all the main orders.
Dusum Khyenpa returned in 1204 as Karma Pakshi, the second karmapa nine years after his death. Again he was born in Kham and came to Tsurpu only when he was forty-three years old. He stayed there for six years. In 1256 he was invted by Kublai Khan, the founder of the Mongolian Yuan dynasty in China and disciple of the sakya Lama Pakpa, to the imperial court where, in acknowledgement of his teachings, he was presented with a black hat embellished with gold. He was also given the title “Pakshi” which means Master’ (Acharya) in Mongolian. However, in 1260 as a result of intrigue an rivalry, he found himself banished from the court and imprisoned. Upon his release four years later he went to Kham. After eight years of teaching he returned to Tsurpu and spent the rest of his life renovating and enlarging the monastery.
Tsurpu was further enlarged during the time of the Fifth Karmapa, Deshinshekpa, in the fifteenth century. Duringthe sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Karmapa were the spiritual abvisors to the kings of Tsang and thus became powerful political figures. They vied with the early Dalai Lamas but when the Mongolian army of Gushri Khan defeated the king of Tsang and enthroned the fifth Dalai Lama as ruler of Tibet in 1642, they lost their political influence. Although many smaller monasteries belonging to the Karmapa sub-sect of the Kagyu school were then forcibly turned into Gelukpa centres, thus diminshing the power of the Kagyupa in Central Tibet, Rigpai Dorje, the Sixteenth Karmapa, went into exile in Rumtek sikkim and directed the Karma Kagyu order from there. A powerful and charismatic figure, he played an important role in preserving the doctrines of the Kagyu tradition and introducing them to the outside world. He died in Chicago in 1981. As the seat of the Karmapa, Tsurpu was the headquarters of the Karma Kagyu order in Tibet and had numerous other sub monasteries and temples scatterred throughout the country, many of which were in Kham. Monks from the order would travel here for their doctinal and contemplative training and,once qualified, return to their home province to take charge of their local monastery.
The building is the Zhi-wa’ Dratsang and this is the place where the monks now gather from their services. The principal object in the main hall downstairs is a throne for the Karmapa, on which stands a photograph of the most recent incarnation, the Sixteenth. To the side of the throne an older black and white picture in China, In 1958 shows him as a young man. The only ancient is one of Nugu Rinpoche, a teacher of the Eighth Karmapa, the great scholar Mikyo Dorje, to the right of the throne. Images of the First, Second and Sixteenth Karmapas sit to the left of the throne. The hall is small and not elaborately decorated. Tangkas most of them modern, depicting various Buddhas, Taras and different incarnations of the Karmapa hang on the walls.
On the upper storey is a protector chapel dedicated to Mahakala, Pelden Lhamo and Dharmaraja, and two residential chambers. The first of these chambers was where Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche and Tai Situ Rinpoche styed during their 1984 visit. In a glass cases set into the wall are many small bronzes depicting the different Karmapas. These status are presumably quite old and many of them may have been cast while their subjects were still living. The second chamber houses four resently comissioned images of the three tibetan founders of the Kagyu school. Milarepa and Gampopa. To the right of Marpa is a statue of Rigpai Dorje, the Sixteenth Karmapa. Hanging from one of the pillars in the room is a photograph of Tsurpu taken in 1967, just before its destruction