Thongwa Donden (1416-1453) was born in Ngom, in eastern Tibet, near Karma Monastery. Immediately after his birth, he sat up and began to laugh. Celestial fragrance permeated the countryside when his umbilical cord was cut. As an infant, he accompanied his parents to the home of the previous Karmapa's disciple, Lama Ngompa Jadralwa. He became very excited upon seeing Jadralwa's face, and when the lama asked him "Who are you?" Thongwa Donden replied, "I am unborn and ineffable. I am nonabiding. I have come as the glory of all who are born, to guide to liberation all those who wander without abode in the cycle of rebirth, leaving no one behind."
When Thongwa Donden was four months old, a rumor arose that Lama Jadralwa had been killed while traveling. Though many were devastated by the news, Thongwa Donden danced with joy and assured his mother that Jadralwa had not been harmed. Jadralwa indeed returned safely, and again asked the child, "Who are you?" Thongwa Donden replied, "I am the incarnation of Deshin Shekpa, don't you know?"
In time, Thongwa Donden was taken to Karma Monastery and shown images of previous Karmapas. When asked, "Who is that?" he replied, laughing, "That is me!" When shown the Karmapa's black crown, he declared, "It is mine!" and took it in his hands. When an attendant brought tea, the child called him by the name the former Karmapa had used. Thongwa Donden also identified all the images in the various temples, convincing those who witnessed the event that he really was the Karmapa. For three days, local residents saw flowers rain from the sky, and it was proclaimed thereafter that Thongwa Donden was the Lord of Dharma himself.
Other miracles followed. Karmapa ended a smallpox epidemic by conferring blessings, and relieved a drought simply by playing with water. After he consecrated a religious painting with barley, seven grains remained floating in the air. When a former disciple named Lama Kunpangpa, asked him, "Please give a gift to one whom you have held near to your heart," Thongwa Donden called him affectionately by the name he had used in his previous life, and gave him a present. The lama's face followed with tears.
Thongwa Donden took novice ordination at the age of nine. He received the Bodhisattva Vow and the transmissions of the various lineages, which he cultivated for many years in retreat. At the time, many of the liturgies of the Kagyu lineage were fragmentary, drawn from source tantras and Indian texts. Oral instructions were required to explain different stages of practice. Karmapa organized the liturgy and wrote many of the standard versions still used today. He also traveled throughout Tibet restoring monasteries, mediating disputes, and teaching the Dharma. All who saw him received his blessing, which transformed their lives. At the age of thirty-eight, Thongwa Donden suddenly grew ill, and after carefully packing and sealing his books and shrine objects, commanded his disciples not to break the seals until he returned. After his passing, his body was cremated and many beautiful relics were found in the ashes.