In PILGRIMAGE by Lee Weingrad2 Comments

My subtext for this piece, particularly part one, is to talk about the Forbidden City as not just a place of cultural or historical import, but as a place that has power, and has had power, to magnetize the enriching presence of the phenomenal world and what is beyond the world as well. As Trungpa Rinpoche put it in an epithet describing Emperor Yong Lo, “pacify the ghostly confusion of the phenomenal world.”
The place hard wired the worldly and spiritual aspirations of Emperors and their guests, such as Karmapa V Deshin Shegpa and the Gelugpa Rolpe Dorje Rinpoche in the Qing Dynasty. The sad truth of our world is the ease with which even the highest aspirations —such as enlightened empire-ship— can be corrupted. We have all read, but only reluctantly believe Gampopa’s words: “samsara is notorious for being without end.” Both Emperors Yong Lo and Qianlong Emperors were enthroned as Chakravartins in their time. Amazing. 
A good deal of the subtext of Chinese history is the connection to the Mongols, who were always a threat — don’t forget that they ruled China in the Yuan Dynasty, under the Khans. Horse people were considered barbarians and both Yong Lo and Qing Emperor Kang Xi, succeeded as rulers in their ability to pacify the Mongols. For the latter, it meant the empowerment of the Dalai Lamas as temporal rulers and the inclusion of Tibet in the Chinese Empire. We are still living with the downstream results of that today. And sorry Donald Trump, it meant something more than building a wall across your country. 
Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I don’t believe the sacredness of the Gugong has ever been addressed quite as directly before as in this article. 
Part II will basically be a narrative of our walk-through and rely much much more on photos.
 We moved back to China in 1999, 2 years after the birth of our son, Joseph, in Boulder Colorado in 1997. Our daughter, Iana was born in Hong Kong in 1995. I moved to China at the end of 1990. By the time we returned, I had already been to the Gugong, the Forbidden City, at least 15 times. I was fascinated with it, its unbelievable size. As a Buddhist, I was attracted to its mojo, and wanted to see if any of that endured.  
Detail of fresco of Karmapa 6th.

Yong Lo, detail from fresco of Karmapa VI, Deshin Shegpa conferring the empowerment of Chakrasamvara on the Emperor Yong Lo. Yong Lo built the Forbidden City and gave the Black Crown to the 5th Karmapa.zIt was constructed during the reign of the 3rd Ming Emperor, Yong Lo way back in the beginning of the 15th century. This was the last dynasty of Han Chinese, before it got usurped or overthrown by the Manchus, the horse raiders and cousins of the Mongols. He was a powerful emperor and his contribution included other remarkable achievements such as the reconstruction of the Grand Canal, linking north and south China, becoming the patron of Jingdezhen, the greatest porcelain site in the world. He assembled an encyclopedia of all knowledge.  He launched a 3,000 ship merchant fleet. Finally, he was the first emperor to be laid to rest in the iconic Ming Tombs. And he built the Forbidden City.

The 5th Karmapa and the Emperor Yong Lo
My teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, has a special place in his teaching for Yong Lo, making him one of 4 Imperial sovereigns connected to his Shambhala terma. To make matters even richer, Yong Lo had invited the 5th Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa, from Tibet in the early 1400’s. It was during his 4 year residence in Beijing that the Karmapa transmitted the heart’s blood of the Kagyu and Surmang lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. For this he was given the title, guo shi or national teacher. In return, Yong Lo was bestowed the title, chakravartin, or universal emperor.

But there are two pieces to the puzzle that are not so obvious. One is that the Karmapas are associated with the black or vajra crown, which signifies their accomplishment and enduring connection to Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The other is the role of Yong Lo in creating a national mandala to which as Trungpa Rinpoche put it, quelled the ghostly confusion of phenomenal existence. Both of these are anchored to the Forbidden City.

You might say or speculate that this was the achievement of one man. But in truth, his power derived from a mandala as well, a mandala that contained the essence of the enriching presence of the phenomenal world, a mandala of sanity and power. That was and is the Forbidden City.  And he built it. Chogyam Trungpa creates a subtle link to the power of this Shambhala ancestral sovereign and that is why I was interested in exploring, on this latest journey to the Forbidden City. But the best part of the story was in something special the emperor created and also that he gave the 5th Karmapa something that links Chinese history to the Kagyu lineage forever. My journey there is part of that link.

The Back Story
Going back 3 generations, the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, was the first tulku or incarnate lama in Tibet. And he was a teacher to Kublai Khan, who was the emperor of China, when the Mongols conquered China, forever after known as the Yuan Dynasty. When Karma Pakshi was invited to the court of the Khan, he was reluctant. He famously said, “I’d rather give the Buddhist teachings to the skull of a dead dog.” So this was not a lineage with much of a political agenda.

It was said that those of great spiritual accomplishment could see a black crown above the Karmapas’ head, made of the hair of 1000 celestial maidens, floating above his head. This is what Yong Lo saw. So he commanded a replica to be made and so it was done. So for the past 600 years the Karmapas did a ceremony of putting the crown on, becoming themselves chakravartins, universal emperor in the process, and also taking on the emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the personification of compassion in Buddhism. Between 1974 and 1980 I witnessed the 16th Karmapa do the Vajra black Crown ceremony at least 12 times in the US.

Forbidden City

This is a 100 year old map of Beijing in English. Until 1959, Beijing had not changed significantly in 500 years.

Connecting to the mandala
So you might say by 1999, I had some deep connection to the Forbidden City. A few years after we moved back to Beijing, I read an article in the newspaper about a director of the relics administration was going to give a lecture on the center of feng shui at the Forbidden City. I immediately called him and told him I’d like to speak to him.

We got together on a cold February afternoon. He told me that the Forbidden City was designed to magnetize the enriching presence of the phenomenal world and what is beyond the phenomenal world. There are parts of it that are connected to the deity of the city. There are parts of it that have to do with the power that water has, to not just neutralize obstacles, but to pro-actively assure wealth and coherence between heaven, earth and man. In fact the emperor was seen as the person who connects heaven, earth and man. That was his main job.

But what is a mandala? It’s kind of model universe, and literally it means center and fringe. The Forbidden City is not just the home of the emperor. It is the mandala in which the emperor rules and resides. The center of the mandala is the main imperial court.  The mandala is the center of Beijing, and Beijing is the center of China. And as we know, China is the center of the world, Zhong Guo, 中国! The Chinese name for China means the Central Country.  

This is not mere chauvinism.

The Gugong or Forbidden City is the largest group architecture construction in the world. It was begun under the reign of the 3rd Ming Emperor, Yong Lo. It is a Daoist Mandala. this view is from the east. The entrance is on the left.

It’s a center, all right, but not just geographically, or culturally,  but from the point of view of energy which is, at its base, feng shui, the way things are arranged to maximize their enriching presence. So the Forbidden City is a master object arrangement.

These manifestations are given names that correspond to what in Tibetan is lha, nyen and lu. What is in the sky, heaven, what is below the ground, lu, and what is inbetween, nyen. In Chinese it’s 天地人, which is heaven, earth and human, with human being the interlocutor between heaven and earth.  Trungpa Rinpoche used to say that the Chinese character, wang, 王, means the person, middle stroke, 一 who unites heaven, top stroke and earth, bottom stroke.

My new friend the relics director explained that it is a Daoist mandala. And he walked me through the mandala and showed me the connection between the colors, the directions, the seasons and the powers that these places have.  In addition, these forces have anthropomorphic representations, with various names in Chinese such as wushen, 武神 war god, fengshen, 風神 wind god, kami, Japanese or particular kinds of long, dragon, 龍, such as tian long 天龍, heaven dragon or shui long 水龍, water dragon. At that point I realized that my understanding of who Yong Lo was, was very primitive.

That Yong Lo was one of the great warriors of the Shambhala lineage was not Trungpa Rinpoche’s recognition alone. Just last summer I saw this huge mural at Surmang, that commemorated the visit of  Karmapa V, Deshinshegpa to Yong Lo.Lee lion

I had been back in May, during the visit of a friend and his family from the US.  Outside of that I rarely go downtown, preferring the slower pace and cleaner air of the Shunyi suburbs where we live. One day at the grocery store I saw an article in the China Daily that said that 20% more of the Forbidden City was to be opened in a few days. I did a little research and realized it was the Ciming Gong, an area in the western side of the Forbidden City. I was opening on Saturday.

When Saturday came, my wife Wenjing and I, full of anticipation, went downtown. It’s very crowded there. On a fine sunny fall day, it took us about ½  hour just to walk from where our taxi dropped us off to the front entrance. Once in, you make about ¼ mile walk to the ticket counters. There are big electronic signs that say they will only admit 80,000 people per day and once #80,000 arrives they stop selling tickets.  It’s Saturday, it’s China, and it’s crowded.

About the Author
Lee Weingrad

Lee Weingrad

Lee Weingrad is a practicing Buddhist, a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche since 1971. He resides in Beijing, China with his wife, Wenjing, and their two children, Iana (in College) and Joseph. He runs Surmang Foundation, a health promotion foundation that focuses on mother and child health in Tibet.

Photos by Lee Weingrad.
Featured image
 HH Karmapa V, Deshin Shegpa, bestowing the empowerment of Chakrasamvara on Ming Emperor Yong Lo 15th C. From a fresco at Surmang Dutsitil Monastery. 2. Yong Lo, detail from fresco of Karmapa VI. 3. Karmapa 16. with the Black Crown. 4. An old map of the Forbidden City. 5. aerial photo. 6. Lion gate protector


  1. Avatar

    Thank you for sharing these wonderful and inspiring stories!

  2. Avatar

    So inspiring!!!
    When comes part 2?

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