The Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa - Contd.

The following is a personal appreciation of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, by Ken Holmes, from his book "Karmapa", published by Altea

Saving the Lineage

After the initial turmoil of flight, a new reality was starting to take shape for Tibetans in India and the Himalayan kingdoms, living in refugee camps such as the one at Baxa. Some of the first contacts were made with sympathetic westerners, such as the now famous Freda Bedi, and an understanding of the world at large, into which they had been projected, began to form. The main task in the Karmapa's hands were to ensure the continuity of his lineage through the education of the young tulkus in his charge and the transmission to them of the many teachings and techniques of the Kagyu tradition, and to establish the temples and retreat centres needed for Kagyu Buddhism to continue. Yet, in another way, he simply continued to do what Karmapas have always done. The Sixteenth Karmapa sometimes shocked his followers, who saw him as a living Buddha and one of the most important people in Asia, by declaring in total sincerity, "I am simply a monk". Unattached to any country, any people or any thing—a friend and example for everyone—it was his duty as a monk to give teachings and nurture the dharma wherever he might be. This also explains the example he set by supervising the construction work at Tsurphu, right up to the imminent arrival of the Chinese. He doubtless knew what was to come and some may wonder, "why bother?". He was pointing to the sacred duty of doing all one can, every day, in a positive way. Thus his followers had made the good karma of building temples for absolutely as long as it was possible so to do and, from a Buddhist perspective, that good karma would be their best companion in times and lives to come.

In 1964, following a successful petition for reinstatement made to HH the Dalai Lama by the unofficial Shamar incarnation, the latter was enthroned by HH the Gyalwa Karmapa as the Eleventh Sharmapa. His reincarnation had also been born into the A-toop family and the young boy had been at Tsurphu and fled Tibet with the Karmapa but official recognition had been impossible in Tibet itself as Shamarpa incarnations had been banned by edict of the central Tibetan government from the late eighteenth century onwards, following accusations of war-mongering.

A new seat

By 1966 the construction of the new Rumtek was completed and the relics brought out from Tsurphu were installed. On Tibetan New Year's day (losar) HH the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa officially opened his new seat called, "The Dharmachakra Centre, a place of erudition and spiritual accomplishment, the seat of the glorious Karmapa". This was to be the hub from which Kagyu dharma spread throughout the world and, step by step, the traditional monastic calendar of special prayers, lama dances, summer rains retreat and so forth was reinstated in that centre-point to ensure the correct spiritual dynamic for the years ahead. Rumtek, the mandala with the Karmapa at its centre, became a very special place, described by many as "the monastery wreathed in a thousand rays of rainbow light".

In Sikkim itself the foundations of Kagyu dharma were established. Traditional texts were, studied, ordinations performed, tulkus found and enthroned, retreat centres built and texts carved onto wooden blocks for xylographic printing. The kindness of the Bhutanese royal family gave hospitality to his tradition in Bhutan also, with the gift of a palace and a large piece of land, upon which to establish a major monastery. Gradually, contacts were made in India and Nepal. At one point, His Holiness had a vision that the construction of many temples and monasteries close to the great stupa at Bodhnath in Nepal (which at the time had little except for the stupa, a temple and a few shops) would greatly help the spread of pure buddhadharma throughout the world. Mainly due to the Karmapa's inspiration, many teachers have established monasteries and temples there and it has become an important focus of Tibetan Buddhism.

Reaching out to the world

In 1967, the first Western Tibetan Buddhist centre, named "Samye Ling" after Samye, the first great monastery of Tibet, was established by Trugpa Tulku and Akong Tulku in Scotland, under the Karmapa's auspices. Through the early seventies several other centres emerged in the West and in 1974 the Karmapa set out on his first world tour. I had the pleasure of meeting him at that time and of preparing his arrival in Scotland and France. The way had already been prepared by the visits of the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, whose monks first blew the earth-shaking long horns (ra-dong) and oboes (ja-ling) of Tibet in Europe. His Holiness' visit set the seal on the beginnings which had taken place. Accompanied by tulkus, a full entourage of monks and Freda Bedi, who was now the Buddhist nun Sister Kechog Palmo, "mummy" to the Tibetans, he performed the Vajra Crown ceremony in Western lands for the first time and gave empowerments and dharma advice. In hindsight, that first visit was the milestone which marked the true arrival of the Kagyu tradition in the world at large.

A great wave of inspiration followed in its wake and His Holiness returned again for a fuller visit in 1977, this time with many more, new centres to visit. This was a very extensive world tour. He visited centres in four continents and met heads of state, heads of religion, elders of many traditions and people from the world of arts. Sometimes in dharma centres, sometimes in huge public spaces holding crowds of many thousands, he performed the Vajra Crown ceremony, gave empowerments, ordinations, bodhisattva vow and refuge and many blessings to people of all faiths. On looking through hundreds of photographs of these visits, the striking feature is the contagious joy and happiness of His Holiness wherever he went. One of the few English words he knew was "Happy?": a question he posed gleefully after giving Refuge or Bodhisattva vow. His joyful, yet nevertheless powerful and authoritative, presence gave many people new to vajrayana the first real chance to meet a perfect guru, free to show the blissfull liberation of his enlightenment.

During this tour, my wife and I had the honour of accompanying him for six months, I as a visa-seeking cum centre-preparing cum chauffeur factotum for the European stage of his tour, organised by Akong Tulku Rinpoche, and Katia as promoter of a major new monastery and dharma centre, to be built on land in France's Dordogne, donated by the inventor Bernard Benson. In travelling at his side during that time, through many different countries, I saw him time after time awaken the fundamental goodness and spiritual potential in people. It was like being with the morning sun as it passes over the earth, warming the ground, nourishing life everywhere and opening millions of flowers. Never had any of us met anyone who radiated so much fundamental goodness and joy, who spoke with such natural authority and fearlessness and whose every gesture was the living demonstration of mindfulness, compassionate care for everyone and lucidity. All paled next to the shimmering natural intelligence that he embodied and that seemd to permeate every place in which he stayed.

We had the particular pleasure of helping him buy and look after the birds of which he was so fond. I saw breeders amazed as their normally fearful and hard-to-catch birds went peacefully to the Karmapa. But especially we saw the birds which died stay erect for days in a peaceful glow of meditation on their perches, instead of dropping to the cage floor, as is normal. Some said these birds were reincarnations of former disciples, who through some bad karma had this lesser body but who through their devotion were born into his presence.

Enlightened activity

Under the Karmapa's overall guidance, the tulkus and rinpoches of the Kagyu tradition developed the interest shown by Americans, Europeans and people in South-East Asia in the centres which they had been invited to establish. His Holiness dedicated himself to preparing what would be essential for the proper future growth of this interest, ensuring the education of the younger reincarnated lamas he had recognised, nurturing the growth of the sangha, and sponsoring the printing, collection and translation of the main scriptures and prayers. During his life he ordained many thousands of monks and recognised more than a hundred tulkus. In particular, he sponsored and distributed to many centres a complete reprint of all the Buddha's teachings (tripitaka) and the main classical commentaries on them; some 300 volumes of scripture in all.

At one point early in his life, while still in Tibet, His Holiness had written a very telling poem, predicting his leaving Tibet. In it, he uses the analogy of the cuckoo which, in Tibetan folk culture, is known as the king of birds; a welcome bird whose call heralds the warmer weather. It is the bird that grows up in another bird's nest and the Karmapa, referring to himself as the cuckoo, obviously foresaw his own going to India. During the latter part of the Sixteenth Karmapa's life, people were already impressed by the accuracy of this prediction. Now it is seen to have had a double meaning, as the subsequent Karmapa goes to yet another nest and, significantly, a cuckoo landed on the tent, in which the Seventeenth Karmapa was being born, and sang its song.


A great guru is the mirror not only reflecting his individual disciples' needs but the general status of things in the world. When their bodies take sick, it can be viewed as being their purification of the sufferings in the world and in their disciples. They also set the example of how to relate to sickness. However, there is no one interpretation of such things, as they are the emanation of cosmic purity within our lives, showing anything that can help us to learn. However, this type of "interpretation" could all be seen as just wishful-thinking, were it not for the miraculous power over the body shown by the Karmapas.

The Sixteenth Karmapa left footprints in rocks on many occasions and in many countries. One day poisonous snakes swarmed from a rock and covered him whilst he was bathing in the Tarzi hot springs, yet he danced joyfully, unharmed. He once tied a heavy sword blade into knots. In his presence, normally antagonistic animals got on well with each other. When photographed with a single plate camera at Rumtek, during an empowerment, he appeared almost transparent. Thorough checking of the negative and a giant print made from it showed that double exposure or any other normal explanation was impossible. At other times the Karmapa had made rain for the Hopi Indians and had stopped droughts, once by bathing on a chosen spot, whence a spring burst forth. His Holiness also left a footprint in the waters of a Tibetan lake, which can still be seen, as a constant footprint depression in the water, summer and winter. The stories of the physical wonders of the Sixteenth Karmapa, witnessed by Buddhists, are many but perhaps the most striking events were those which took place around his death, for these were witnessed by amazed non-Buddhist physicians in an Illinois hospital.


During the 1970s, the Karmapa started to show signs of cancer. At one point, this became life-threatening and he was operated upon. After a remission, there was a gradual recurrence, complicated by the fact that his symptoms came and went, totally disappeared or manifested as something completely different in a way which confounded regular analysis. He was undoubtedly unwell yet is was as though his body were joking with the machines. His illness was to end in death at the American International Clinic in Zion, near Chicago, Illinois.

Many inexplicable things happened during that Chicago time. A medical record of them was kept by the Indian army physician, Dr Kotwal, who had accompanied His Holiness medically for many years. When the immortal enlightened mind of the Sixteenth Karmapa left its physical shell, his body remained in gentle meditation for three days, during which time the heart centre remained very warm and the skin supple. This was attested to by the doctors despite all the other clinical symptoms of death. Amazed, some of the medical staff visited the holy place of his room, to witness the impossible. Only after three such days did the usual manifestations of death appear. His Holiness body was flown back to India and cremated in grand ceremony at Rumtek. During the cremation ceremony, each of the four main rinpoches made a mandala offering. When it was the Tai Situpa's turn, he approached the northern gate of the cremation urn to offer the tsampaka flour mandala and saw something fall from the blazing body onto the base of the inner pyre, near the gate. Unsure what to do for the best, the Tai Situpa quickly sent a monk to ask advice from the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, who was most experienced in such things.

Some five minutes later, the monk came back through the crowd with a message from Kalu Rinpoche that it was something very sacred and should be removed and kept as a relic. It was His Holiness' heart, now partially charred. This was enshrined in a golden stupa at Rumtek and has become a Kagyu lineage relic; an object of deep veneration. Some of the bones found among the ashes had self-formed images of the buddhas on them and there were many small crystal-relics, known as rin.sel. Such occurrences—the heart, the self-formed images and rinsel—were also witnessed at the passing of the very first Karmapa, Dusum Chenpa. Some days after the cremation, Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche noticed a baby's footprint in the northern quarter of one of the mandala arranged for the cremation. Perhaps the Sixteenth Karmapa was already leaving signs of the direction of his next emanation.

One duty of a great spiritual teachers is to discourage disciples from taking their presence for granted. Lord Buddha's passing into nirvana was a formidable teaching given to remind his followers of their own responsibility, to themselves and others, to practice and not to be always carried on the wave of another's spirituality. Lord Buddha's parting words were, "All composite things are impermanent; strive with earnestness" . In the passing away and reincarnation of the Karmapa, it is very important for each disciple to learn about impermanence and to pray sincerely and whole-heartedly for the master to reincarnate. Those deep prayers help shake them from the mental lethargy which is a meditator's enemy; the expectation of having everything "handed to one on a plate", the feeling that someone else will do the necessary. It is important for each person to participate in the calling out for that pure mind to grace the world again. Death is, and will always be, a Buddhist's greatest teacher and it was a painful lesson for many people, including westerners, when the Sixteenth Karmapa, and indeed their other beloved teachers, died.


The years of uncertainty, longing, praying, reflection before the reincarnation is found bring much maturity to the mind, helping one to appreciate more fully each moment to be spent with fine gurus in the future. Meeting remarkable teachers is a result from excellent past good karma, and it is vital to keep generating the karma in the present in order to make such meetings happen again and again in the future. In this process, motivation and heartfelt prayer play a central role.

Marpa the Translator brought the Kagyu dharma to Tibet. His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa brought it to the world, turning the wheel of dharma on all its levels and immaculately establishing the right conduct, meditation and wisdom which are the three mainstays of the Buddha's teachings.

16th Karmapa, Part One, Kagyu Teachings

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