41. 16th Karmapa 1924-1981
“Karmapa, Lord of the world, think of us.
Behold us from the space where all beings, in numbers as vast as the sky, are trained.
Bring us to see that all phenomena are like an illusion, without any true existence,
And to realize appearance and mind arising as the three kayas.”
— Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, “Devotion that Moves the Heart – Calling the Lama from Afar”
“The backbone of the Kagyü Golden Rosary Lineage is Karmapa, always.”
— His Eminence the Twelfth Tai Situpa
The Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, was born in Denkhog in the province of Derge, East Tibet. His father’s name was Tsewang Phuntsok, and his mother’s name was Kelzang Dolma. Having been told by a few masters in Derge that she would bear a great Bodhisattva, Kelzang Dolma went to stay in a sacred cave that was once used by Guru Rinpoche and there she awaited the birth of her son. She was accompanied by a Khenpo who instructed her on the cleansing ceremony. It is said that toward the end of her pregnancy, the future Karmapa disappeared from her womb for a whole day. He returned and Kelzang Dolma experienced normal pregnancy again. Those persons who were present on the auspicious day of his birth heard the new-born baby say to his mother that he would leave soon.
The circumstances of His Holiness’ birth coincided precisely with the prediction letter written by the Fifteenth Karmapa, which he had given to Jampäl Tsultim, his attendant. Jampäl Tsultrim gave the letter to the monastic authorities at Tsurphu Monastery, who then asked the Eleventh Tai Situpa, Pema Wangchug Gyalpo, and the Second Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Pälden Khyentse Öser, to clarify certain points. A search party was sent out. They found the child, brought him to His Eminence Tai Situpa, who recognized him as the reincarnation of the Fifteenth Gyalwa Karmapa. While still residing at Palpung Gon in Derge and at the age of 8, the boy took the Bodhisttva vows, was ordained, and received the Black Vajra Crown and robes of the previous Karmapa that were brought to Palpung from Tsurphu. Tai Situpa gave him the name Rangjung Khyabdak Rigpe Dorje. On the way to his enthronement at Palpung, the Karmapa stopped to visit and bless the Derge Monastic Publishing House, thus paving the way to later publish the Buddhist canon in India. Tai Situ Rinpoche then accompanied him on the long journey to Tsurphu, the seat of the Karmapas in Central Tibet, where the Sixteenth Karmapa was greeted by Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Nenang Pawo Rinpoche.
Soon afterwards, the Karmapa was received by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama who performed the Hair-cutting Ceremony. At that time, the Dalai Lama had a vision of the ever-present wisdom-crown on the Karmapa’s head. Afterwards, the Karmapa was officially enthroned at his main seat at Tsurphu Monastery by His Eminence Tai Situpa and the Head of the Drukpa Kagyu Lineage. He received the full Kagyü transmissions from Tai Situpa and then studied many Sutras with Gangkar Rinpoche and the Tantras with Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, who gave him the Mahamudra transmission and instructions and therefore was his Root Guru. Other brilliant scholars were also teachers of His Holiness. On his way back to Palpung, the Karmapa visited Pangphu Monastery in Lithang, East Tibet. Pangphu Monastery was founded by the First Gyalwa Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa, where, in the tradition of the inconceivable activities of the Karmapas, he is said to have left footprints in solid rock.
At the age of 18, His Holiness returned to Tsurphu and stayed in retreat most of the time, until he was 21 years old. He then directed his attention on strengthening relationships with India and neighbouring Himalayan countries. While on pilgrimage to southern Tibet, he accepted an invitation from the King of Bhutan, His Highness Jigme Dorje Wangchug, and at that time visited Bumthang Valley in North Bhutan, renowned for caves used by Guru Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal. He visited many sacred sites in Bhutan, offering spiritual advice wherever he went. At the age of 23, His Holiness and his entourage made a pilgrimage to Sikkim, Nepal, and India and visited the major sacred sites of Lord Buddha’s life, which are Lumbini (the birthplace of the Buddha), Bodhgaya (where the Buddha attained enlightenment), and Sarnath at Varanasi (where the Buddha first turned the Wheel of Dharma). Having travelled through Kinnaur in the district of Himachal Pradesh and made pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, His Holiness returned to Tsurphu a year later. He was now 24 years old.
In 1954, the Sixteenth Karmapa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and other high Tibetan Lamas travelled to China together. The Karmapa visited many monasteries in East Tibet on his way back to Tsurphu. Having accepted the invitation of the Mahabodhi Society of India to be present at the celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of Buddhism, the Karmapa travelled to India, where he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. On that occasion, he strengthened his ties to his disciples Tashi Namgyal, the King of Sikkim, and Ashi Wangmo, Princess of Bhutan. King Tashi Namgyal invited the Karmapa to visit Rumtek Monastery that was built at the end of the 16 th century by the Ninth Gyalwa Karmapa, Wangchug Dorje, but His Holiness said that he would come later.
Foreseeing the communist Chinese invasion of Tibet and the inevitable destruction of Buddhist institutions in Tibet, in the spring of 1959 the Karmapa informed the Dalai Lama of his intention to leave his homeland. The Sixteenth Karmapa, accompanied by a large entourage, then fled from Tibet. The escape was organized by Damchö Yondu, the General Secretary for His Holiness. The party carried with them the sacred statues, paintings, reliquaries, and other precious items of the Karmapas. Three weeks later they arrived safely in northern Bhutan, where senior government officials received them. The Karmapa was given a palace and a large piece of land by the Royal Family of Bhutan, who invited him to establish his major monastery in exile there.
Chögyal Tashi Namgyal, King of Sikkim, sent a formal invitation to His Holiness, inviting him to set up his seat in Sikkim, and two months after their arrival in Bhutan, the party went to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. From among the several sites proposed by the King, the Karmapa chose to settle at Rumtek. Although he hoped to return to Tsurphu, the Karmapa stated that Rumtek could be his seat outside Tibet. Rumtek Monastery almost lay in ruins and the surrounding area was in a very poor state. While His Holiness began construction of the new facilities at Rumtek with the help of foreign aid, the refugees lived in temporary quarters for many years. In 1962, the foundation for the new monastery of Rumtek was laid by the successor of King Tashi Namgyal, who had passed away, and it construction (supervised by Damchö Yongdu) was funded primarily through the generosity of the Royal Family of Sikkim and the Indian Government after His Holiness met Pandi Nehru in 1966. Completed four years later, the sacred items and relics brought from Tsurphu were enshrined in the New Rumtek Monastery, and on Tibetan New Years Day, His Holiness officially inaugurated the new seat of the Karmapas in Sikkim. He gave it the name “The Dharmachakra Center – A Place of Erudition and Spiritual Accomplishment, the Seat of the Glorious Karmapa.”
In the year 1974, at the age of 50, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa set out on his first world tour. He visited the United States, Canada, and Europe. Accompanied by other teachers, a large entourage of monks, and many staff members, he performed the Vajra Crown Ceremony in the western hemisphere for the first time, gave empowerments, and offered profound Dharma instructions to many devotees. Pope Paul the VIth forwarded an invitation to His Holiness, who visited him in the Vatican in 1975. Between 1976 and 1977, His Holiness again travelled to the West and continued on a world-tour. He visited Dharma centers on the four continents and met heads of states, religious leaders, elders of many traditions, artists, and people from all walks of life. In 1979, he laid the foundation for the construction of the Karma Dharmachakra Center in New Delhi; the inauguration ceremony was attended by the President and Prime Minister of India. His Holiness had envisioned that it would become a study, meditation, and translation center of the Kagyü Lineage.
In May 1980, His Holiness began his last world tour. He travelled to Greece, England, the United States, and Southeast Asia. During this tour, he performed the Vajra Crown Ceremony, gave teachings, empowerments, interviews, held audiences, and engaged in many beneficent activities.
On November 5, 1981, at the age of 57, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa passed into Parinirvana at the International Clinic in Zion, near Chicago, Illinois. His Holiness’ precious body, his Kudung, was flown to India and brought to Sikkim. On December 20, the Karmapa’s cremation ceremony was performed at Rumtek Monastery. Indian dignitaries and thousands of disciples from all over the world attended the services.
On December 21, 1981, a general meeting consisting of the Karma Kagyü Regents and Lamas was held at Rumtek at the request of Dhamchö Yongdu. He requested Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche to form a council of regents to take joint responsibility for the spiritual affairs of the Karma Kagyü Lineage. He also asked them to locate Karmapa’s instructions concerning his rebirth and thus bring forward his next incarnation. The Eminences agreed to do this and expressed their sincere intention to fulfil the wishes of the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, their Root Guru.
A few verses of instructions from “The Songs of Rangjung Rigpe Dorje” (in “The Rain of Wisdom”) written by the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa for his disciples worldwide:
“The father guru who is the embodiment of the three roots
Dwells in the center of my heart, the realm of citta.
Toward the guru who is always the essence of the trikaya,
Devotion of the three kinds of faith arises. (…)
“Karma, its cause and effect, is inevitably experienced.
It ripens accordingly as one takes up or abandons virtue or evil deeds.
Thinking of this, I feel compassion toward all our fathers and mothers.
Because we are ignorant, tightly fixated on permanence,
We are fettered by our own deeds.
In this prison, where black and white are distinguished,
It is certain that the fruits of all one’s actions will ripen in oneself.
“Think of this, all sentient beings are our old mothers,
And do not misunderstand the different causes and their effects.
Sit freely in the place of the three solitudes,
And practice strenuously in both body and speech.
If you do this, the kindness of the glorious guru
Is beyond near and far.
Each cause brings forth its respective effects.
When one realizes the essence of the two truths,
The nature of all sentient beings of the three realms
Is seen not to differ from this.
In the unfabricated perfection of one’s mind
The net of the three realms is unravelled by self-luminosity. (…)
“May the 1,002 buddhas of the three times,
By the true power of the vow of their nonconceptual mind,
Make manifest instantaneously
The kingdom of the dharmakaya which transcends the intellect,
And may they liberate all sentient beings in this essence.
“Saddened by the views and actions of the untamed people of this dark age, I sang this song called ‘Dispelling the Anguish of Mind’ in order to arouse the vow of compassion of the only father guru.
Embodiment of all refuges, dharmakaya Vajradhara,
Is inseparable from the body of the glorious guru.
Because of my overwhelming longing for you, this melodious song
Overflows from the power of my overwhelming devotion. (…)
“Passing beyond with the self-existing ground of insight-emptiness,
This ordinary mind of nowness
Is not conceptualized as being born or liberated.
Its unceasing manifestation cannot be thought of as an external object.
Samsara and nirvana appear simultaneously.
This is the effortless path, marvellous Mahamudra.
One meets the face of basic self-existing insight.
The ways of samsara and nirvana are mastered,
And the confused appearance of the three realms collapse into space.
One reaches the self-existing trikaya;
So why wish for future results?
This is the special teaching of the Kagyüs;
Contemplating this, I pursue the path taken by the forefathers.
“You followers who rely on me,
Have no desire for this life; think of the next life. (…)
“(…) concentrate on learning, contemplation, and meditation.
Raise the victory banner of the teachings of the Practice Lineage to the summit of the world.
Accomplish the two benefits on this very seat.
May the fortunate circumstances of accomplishing these,
The gurus, Mahakala, Mahakali, and their host,
Always accomplish one’s wishes.”
“I discovered a little trust and certainty in the view and meditation of the Kagyü and was saddened at the actions of those who show the outward form of the dharma, but do not practice in accord with the dharma. For a long time, my nephew, the retreat master Dechen, and others urged me again and again to sing a song like this. Now, on this auspicious occasion of the preparation of a new edition of the woodblock of ‘The Ocean of Songs of the Kagyü Forefathers,’ I was again persistently urged by the head of discipline, Lama Drubgyü Tendar. In order not to refuse his request, I, the sixteenth holder of the glorious Karmapa lineage, spoke spontaneously whatever arose in my mind. Mangalam.”
The Twelfth Tai Situpa recounts: “There is one thing that my supreme Guru, His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, told me, which I remember very clearly – and all the time I try to keep this in mind and be mindful of it. He said:
‘When you go out and teach people, let them know that they are the shrine of the Buddha. The Buddha’s shrine is within them. Let them know that.’”
His Eminence the Twelfth Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Dragpa Tenpe Yarpel, is overseeing activities at Rumtek Dharmachakra Centre until His Holiness, the present Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, returns. A short description of the compound according to its homepage: “Perched on a hilltop facing the city of Gangtok, the monastery complex at Rumtek Dharmachakra Centre embodies the vision and aspiration of the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, to establish his seat-in-exile to help spread the teachings of the Buddha throughout the world. The monastery, the largest in Sikkim, is home to the community of monks, the place where they perform the sacred rituals and practices of the Karma Kagyü Lineage. Many sacred objects are housed within the complex, and one of the most magnificent is the Golden Stupa, which contains the precious relics of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa. Opposite that building is the Shedra, or college, Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies.” The Institute was inaugurated in November 1981. Monasteries in the Himalayan region of Sikkim, India, Nepal, and Bhutan are asked to send two monks each to study there. When they complete their studies, they return to their monasteries to teach or they stay at the Institute to assist in the work there. Furthermore, “Members of the lay Sangha practice in the community Lhakhang just outside the walls of the monastery complex. Surrounding Rumtek Dharmachakra Centre is the Stupa walkway, where monks, pilgrims, and visitors alike circumambulate.”