The Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa

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

The Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorje, was born in the kingdom of De-ge, in eastern Tibet, in 1923, as the son of a noble family called A-toop. Having received predictions that she would bear a great bodhisattva son, his mother had gone to stay in a holy cave, once used by Guru Rinpoche, where she waited to give birth. It is said that, at one point at the very end of the pregnancy, the future Karmapa disappeared entirely from his mother's womb for a whole day. He was to do many such things in his life which would confound materialists and doctors, as witnessed by physicians in the Chicago hospital, where he eventually died. The day of his birth, his mother returned to normal pregnancy size and soon gave birth to him. Those present heard him say to his mother that he would be leaving. Water in offering bowls there turned to milk. Realising that she had indeed given birth to a great bodhisattva, she pretended to have had a daughter, to protect the child through secrecy.

His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpi Dorje

The Eleventh Tai Situpa, one of the most eminent lamas of the Kagyu tradition, soon recognised the A-toop child as being the new Gyalwa Karmapa and sought confirmation from HH the Dalai Lama. The details of the birth coincided properly with those of a prediction letter entrusted by the Fifteenth Karmapa to his attendant. Meanwhile, the child received his first ordination and bodhisattva vows from the Tai Situpa and from Palpung Kongtrul Rinpoche: his predecessor's two foremost disciples. Eventually, the Dalai Lama gave his aknowledgement. The boy was eight years old and still residing in the De-ge kingdom, when he received the Vajra Crown and ceremonial robes of the Karmapa, brought to him from Tsurphu. He visited Palpung monastery, stopping to bless the famous De-ge monastic printing works on the way, and was enthroned there, as the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpe Dorjé, by Palpung's chief abbot, the Tai Situpa, who shortly afterwards accompanied him on the long journey to the seat of the Karmapas at Tsurphu, in central Tibet, where the new incarnation was greeted by Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Palpung Kongtrul and Pawo Rinpoche.

Tsurphu is close to Lhasa. Soon after his arrival, the Karmapa was received by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who performed the "hair-cutting" ceremony. While so doing, the Dalai Lama had a vision of the celestial bodhisattva crown on the Karmapa's head. After this ceremony, the Karmapa was given a second enthronement, at Tsurphu, by the Tai Situpa and the Head of the Drukpa Kagyu school. He then studied for some years under Gongkar Rinpoche, an extremely erudite scholar who had mastered the entire tripitaka and who recorded several stories of former lifes told to him by the young Karmapa. It was a great loss that these stories remained with him in Tibet at the time of the troubles. He never escaped and the records were lost.

The Karmapa continued his studies within the Kagyu tradition by returning to Palpung and there receiving two comprehensive series of empowerments and teachings from the Tai Situpa: the "Treasury of Kagyu Vajrayana Teachings" and the "Treasury of Sacred Instructions". Around this time, while visiting Pangpook monastery, it is said that not only did both the Gyalwa Karmapa and the Tai Situpa leave footprints in the rocks, but so also did the Karmapa's horse and dog! Some time later, the Karmapa, still based at Palpung, received a full transmission of the teachings of the Sakya tradition.

The 18-year old Karmapa returned to Tsurphu. From 1941-1944 he spent much time in retreat, while in the world at large World War II was being fought to its conclusion. Tsurphu monastery was extended during this period. The Karmapa then went on pilgrimage to Samye, to Lodrak in the south of Tibet where Marpa had first introduced the Kagyu teachings, and then on to Bhutan . In 1945 the Tai Situpa gave him full ordination vows (bhikkhu) and further comprehensive Kagyu teachings, on the giving of empowerments. He also received from the great Nyingma master Urgyen Rinpoche complete transmission of the Nyingma teachings of Terton Chojur Lingpa, who had made important predictions about the lives of the Karmapas, up to the twenty-first.

In 1947 he travelled to India, Nepal and Sikkim - an independent kingdom at the time and now part of India. His pilgrimage included the major places of the Buddha's life: Lumbini, just inside Nepal, where the Buddha was born, Benares (Varanasi) where he first taught and Bodh Gaya, the place of his enlightenment. Upon his return to Tsurphu in 1948, he received the final transmissions of the Kagyu teachings from two gurus: the Second Palpung Kongtrul and the Eleventh Tai Situpa, who was now very advanced in years . By this time, his training was complete, not only in the Kagyu, but also the Sakya and Nyingma traditions. Indeed, in 1953, he was to pass on the Chojur Lingpa teachings to Mindroling R inpoche, head of the Nyingma tradition and one of Tibet's "four great lamas".

By the 1950s the turbulence that was to end up as the takeover of Tibet by China was already stirring. In 1954, the Karmapa, the young Dalai Lama and other leading representatives of Tibetan Buddhism went to Peking in response to an invitation from the Chinese government. While there, the Karmapa had a vision of the reincarnation of his teacher, the Tai Situpa, who had passed away in 1952, and sent instructions to the Tai Situ's monastery at Palpung. The child was found, exactly according to his instructions, and he enthroned him at the Palpung seat on his return journey from Peking to Tsurphu. During his stopover in eastern Tibet, several hundred Kagyu reincarnate lamas gathered around him and, obviously aware of the troubles in store, he transmitted to them many teachings and empowerments, as well as giving extensive ordinations. During this time, he gave the most secret and powerful protector empowerments. These are given only once in a lifetime and to only thirteen lamas. Of the hundreds of tulkus present, some relatively unknown ones, such as Akong Tulku of Drolma Lhakang, were summoned secretly to be part of the thirteen. Very interestingly, these were all later to play key roles in establishing the buddhadharma in the world at large.

The Karmapa returned to eastern Tibet in 1955, to act as a peacemaker between the local Tibetans and the Chinese military. He brokered a five-year peace accord. He travelled on to Sikkim and from there continued on pilgrimage. Buddhists worldwide had agreed to lay aside their difference s over the dates of the Buddha's life and to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of Buddhism in 1956. This was based upon the date marked upon the historic Asoka stone pillar, which has Lord Buddha's passing from this world as (the equivalent of) 544 BCE. It was not only the celebration of a round number of years but also that of the beginning of the sixth era, as the Buddha had predicted the evolution of his teaching as taking place in ten 500-year periods. HH the Dalai Lama, HH the Karmapa and HH the Panchen Lama visited India to participate in the anniversay at the invitation of the Indian Mahabodhi Society invited. The Karmapa and his party revisited the holy sites of India as pilgrims. During this visit to India and Sikkim, he renewed his acquaintance with his disciples Tashi Namgyal, the Maharaja of Sikkim and with Azhi Wangmo, the Bhutanese Buddhist princess. The Maharaja invited him to visit Rumtek, a small monastery in Sikkim which the ninth Gyalwa Karmapa had founded at the end of the 16th century. His Holiness was unable to accept his invitation at that time but said that he would go there in the future, when it would be needed.

The next few years were to prove critical. His Holiness recognised several important new reincarnations, including Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Palpung Jamgon Kongtrul and Drongsar Chentse, and Tsurphu became the refuge of Kagyu tulkus fleeing the violence that had again erupted in eastern Tibet. These included Palpung's great yogi, Kalu Rinpoche and the young Tai Situ, Tralek and Sangye Nyenpa tulkus. These young reincarnations were to be the future heart of the Kagyu lineage and His Holiness nurtured them with great care. Some he sent to safety fairly early on, such as the Tai Situpa and Sangye Nyenpa, who were accompanied by Kalu Rinpoche to Bhutan. Foreseeing the inevitable horrors that were to happen to Buddhism in Tibet, the Sixteenth Karmapa informed the Dalai Lama, in the spring of 1959, of his intention of leaving his homeland in order to preserve the greatest "wealths" of his lineage: the clear young minds of its incarnate lamas and the spiritual treasures and relics that were portable. He led a party of some 150 tulkus, monks and laypeople on a relatively easy journey to Bhutan. It took three weeks.

It must have been a moving and awe-inspiring journey for his party. Accompanied by the leader they loved so dearly, they first passed through the southern area of Lodrak, where Marpa and Milarepa had created the history of their tradition and where the nine-storey tower, built single-handedly by Milarepa in back-breaking conditions as a trial of faith in his master, almost 900 years previously, still stood. When they were approaching the 6,000 metre pass which is the border between Bhutan and Tibet, most people wanted to stop and rest, yet His Holiness urged them on, saying that it was vital to cross that very day. They did so and, that very night, heavy snows fell blocking off the Chinese pursuers close behind them. The Karmapa's perspicacity saved them from certain capture, as they were unaware of being followed. In Bhutan they were warmly received by the princess, now a nun, and the Tai Situpa and Kalu Rinpoche came to join the Karmapa.

The Karmapa himself continued on to Sikkim, where he was again warmly received by the royal family and formally invited to establish his new seat. Of the several sites proposed, he decided it best to settle at Rumtek—the monastery built by the ninth Karmapa but now almost in ruins. He said the prophetic words that he hoped one day to return to Tibet but that Rumtek could be his seat out of Tibet. The generosity of the Sikkimese royal family and, a little later, of the Indian government, following the Karmapa's meeting with Pandit Nehru, funded most of the construction of the new Rumtek. The Indian Government donated 1.4 million rupees.

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