16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje


The Sixteenth Karmapa shepherded his disciples and his lineage through the most traumatic upheaval that Tibetan Buddhism has faced since the time of the First Karmapa. The Sixteenth Karmapa was born in the East and died in the West. In between, not only did he set the Karma Kagyu lineage on firm and stable ground in exile, he also spread the Buddha’s teachings in the fertile soil he found farther afield, in Europe and America. With the adaptability typical of the Karmapa line, as he left his home in Tibet far behind, His Holiness was able to sow seeds of Dharma that flourished richly in the very different climate of Western minds.

On the 15th day of the 6th month of the Tibetan lunar calendar, in 1924, the Karmapa’s enduring commitment to serve sentient beings led him to take birth once again. For this sixteenth rebirth, the Karmapa chose the aristocratic Athup family, and was born in Kham—a region in eastern Tibet where the Karmapa took birth in many lifetimes, including his current lifetime as the Seventeenth Karmapa.

Meanwhile, eager to find the reincarnation of their lama—the Fifteenth Karmapa—Situ Rinpoche and Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche opened the prediction letter that he had left with an attendant to guide them to his next birthplace. Inside, they found a description of the location of the home, mentioning the Athup family by name and specifying the date of birth as the 15th day of the 6th month. Situ Rinpoche and Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche sent a search party to determine whether a child might have been born to the family on such a date. The moment they met the remarkable son of the Athup family, the search was successfully concluded. The Eleventh Tai Situpa formally recognized him as the Sixteenth Karmapa, and sought the confirmation of that identification by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Tai Situ Rinpoche then enthroned the Gyalwang Karmapa at the age of seven at Palpung Monastery, the seat of the Tai Situpa reincarnation line. Soon thereafter, he left for central Tibet, to take up residence at the main seat at which every single Karmapa in history has resided for some period: Tsurphu Monastery.

From Tsurphu, the Gyalwang Karmapa travelled to Lhasa to meet His Holiness the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who performed a formal hair-cutting ceremony for the Gyalwang Karmapa. During their first meeting, the Karmapa wore his Action Crown. He removed the crown in order to perform the traditional prostrations to the Dalai Lama. When the Sixteenth Karmapa had completed his prostrations, His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked his chief minister why the Karmapa had not removed his second hat to prostrate. Astonished, the minister replied that the Gyalwang Karmapa had been completely bare-headed. When the Dalai Lama explained that the Karmapa had only removed the Action Crown, but not his other crown, all present realized that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had been able to perceive the Naturally Appearing Wisdom Crown that all Karmapas bear, but only those of pure view actually perceive. In 1955, in his own next life as the Fourteenth, the Dalai Lama visited Tsurphu to receive the Black Crown Ceremony from the Sixteenth Karmapa.

In the years to come, His Holiness Rangjung Rigpe Dorje received the training traditionally undergone by each Karmapa, performed the Black Crown Ceremony, and generally resumed his work of ripening the minds of sentient beings. An account from the autobiography of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche gives a sense of His Holiness’ manner of guiding disciples. Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche had been doing meditative practice, mainly chö, in a number of caves and burial grounds in the vicinity of Tsurphu. When he sought an audience with the Karmapa, he was granted a private interview at once. As Rinpoche relates in his autobiography:

“What is the essence of your mind like?” [His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa] asked me. Immediately my mind became free of thoughts, and, for a brief while, I could not speak. Eventually, I replied, “When I analyze my mind, I cannot find it, but, when it is resting, it possesses clarity.” He laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s it. All objects are appearance-emptiness inseparable. All mental states are clarity-emptiness inseparable. All feelings are bliss-emptiness inseparable. This is how they truly are; recognize them to be so.” For a moment, through the guru’s blessing, my mind once again became free of thoughts, and I sat silently. He gazed upon me and then said, “Practice like that in the cave.” I returned to my practice cave once again, reflecting on the meaning of his words repeatedly. I gained strong certainty that, although his words were brief, they possessed profound and vast meaning. By contemplating these profound oral instructions, from the time I received them to the present, I have come to understand that they contain the profound, essential points of the view of all sūtra and tantra.

Into Exile

From His Holiness’ words and deeds while in Tibet, it is clear that he had a certain foreknowledge of the traumatic events to come. At the age of 17, he had composed a poem that included this verse, as translated in Michele Martin’s Music in the Sky:

Not now, but on a distant tomorrow it will be decided.
Both the vulture and I know where to go.
The vulture soars into the depths of space;
We people do not stay, but go to India.
In the springtime a cuckoo comes as a guest.
In the fall when the harvest ripens, it knows where to go.
Its only thought is travel to the east of India.

With remarkable prescience, His Holiness began preparing for the flight from Tibet long in advance. During the 15 years before the communist Chinese invasion of Tibet, he made repeated pilgrimages to countries whose hospitality would ensure the future of Tibetan Buddhism and the Karma Kagyu lineage after Tibetans were forced into exile. The Gyalwang Karmapa visited Bhutan in 1944, and made subsequent trips to Nepal and India, where he cultivated numerous important relationships. In Sikkim, he built on the ties between the Karma Kagyu and the Sikkimese royalty that have such deep roots in the history of the Karma Kagyu. Meanwhile, His Holiness acted for the welfare of people within Tibet as well. In 1954, at the invitation of the Chinese government, he accompanied His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and a number of other high officials on a trip to Beijing.

Later, once the Chinese army began taking over Tibet by force, His Holiness continued to protect his disciples in ways that only extraordinary masters can, as Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche relates in Karma Chakme’s Mountain Dharma as Taught by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Vol. Two:

When I was fleeing from the invading communist army, I was being shot at by a machine gun. In order that I not be killed, I was praying, “Karmapa khyenno, Karmapa khyenno,” as I was running, and actually visualizing the Karmapa covering my back. I managed to get away and was not hit by any of the bullets. About a month after that, when I reached Central Tibet in Tsurphu, where His Holiness was still living before he left Tibet, and a group of us had an audience with him, he said, “I am delighted that all of you were able to safely escape from the invading soldiers, but I wish to remind some among you that you are supposed to visualize your guru above your head, not on your back like some kind of cape.”

In 1959, after repeated petitions from his students to make his way to safety, His Holiness determined that the time had come to leave Tibet. Travelling overland for 21 days, the Gyalwang Karmapa and 160 of his disciples arrived safely in Bhutan, where the party was warmly received by Bhutanese government officials. After discussions with the Government of India as to where it would be best to resettle, and following the eager invitation of the Sikkimese king, it was agreed that His Holiness would establish a base for his lineage in Sikkim. Given his choice of land in the kingdom, His Holiness selected a site in Rumtek where the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, had founded a monastic establishment in the 16th century. That monastery had largely fallen into ruins, and was surrounded by dense jungle. The Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru generously offered the full support of the Indian government for the planned construction. With land and further funds provided by the Sikkimese royal house, in 1962 the daunting task of clearing jungle and creating a new monastic seat commenced. During the rebuilding effort, 108 monks and laypeople offered their service to the work 10 hours a day. By 1966, His Holiness had entered his new seat in Rumtek, called Dharmachakra Centre, and monastic life in exile could begin in earnest.

Thereafter, during the 1960s and into the 1970s, an important focus of Gyalwang Karmapa’s activities was training the four major Karma Kagyu lineage holders: Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Goshir Gyaltsap Rinpoche and Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche. All four were at an early stage of their study and training, and the Gyalwang Karmapa guided them personally, as well as the remainder of the monastic community at Rumtek.

His Holiness placed tremendous emphasis on training in discipline, and the pure observance of monastic vows. He instituted a remarkable practice in support of such training at the new monastery in Rumtek. Each evening, the entire monastic assembly gathered for a detailed review of the personal conduct of each member. His Holiness himself presided over these nightly sessions, which were called saldep, meaning that guidance is given by reminding students of what they already know. For between one and two hours, everyone was not only permitted, but actively encouraged, to speak up about any infractions of monastic discipline they had committed themselves or observed others commit. The structure was entirely democratic, with ordinary monks fully authorized to point out any lapses they had witnessed even by the highest of lamas present. The system echoed the monastic training instituted by the Buddha himself, wherein the correction and confession of physical and verbal misdeeds was similarly conducted in an open forum.

In the early years at Rumtek, such sessions took place every day. Later in His Holiness’ life, they were held three times a month. Under His Holiness’ watchful care, Rumtek Monastery gained a reputation for maintaining exceptionally pure discipline. The results were inspiring, and earned Rumtek Monastery the widespread respect of the local Indian and Sikkimese communities.

Turning to the West

Along with directing the re-establishment of Tibetan Buddhism in exile in India, a major deed of the Sixteenth Karmapa was his transmission of the Dharma to countries of the West. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, His Holiness made numerous Dharma connections with Western students who came to see him in India. He increasingly directed his energies towards the West in the mid-1970s, once his community was established at his seat in India, in Sikkim. His Holiness made a first tour of Western countries in 1974, visiting the United States, Canada and Europe. In 1975, he travelled to Rome to meet Pope Paul VI. On a subsequent and far lengthier tour from 1976 to 1977, the Gyalwang Karmapa met with other religious leaders, as well as important political and cultural figures.

In public, the Sixteenth Karmapa performed the Black Crown Ceremony on numerous occasions across the West, and conferred tantric initiation. Through these activities, His Holiness created strong Dharma connections with the large assemblies who gathered for these events. In private, he gave spiritual advice to the many students who sought his counsel, directly guiding the meditative practice of Western disciples. In this way, His Holiness’ activities both drew in new disciples seeking a spiritual path, and ripened the minds of those who were already prepared to commit themselves to serious Dharma practice.

Throughout his activities, His Holiness used a myriad means to collect his students and ripen their minds. Once, His Holiness visited Samye Ling Dharma Centre in Scotland and taught at a local village hall. A butterfly entered the hall and flew directly to His Holiness. The Gyalwang Karmapa directed his gaze to it, and the butterfly then hovered above his head motionless until the teaching had concluded. When His Holiness rose and left, the butterfly also left. As the audience dispersed into the night, they witnessed a rainbow-colored halo glowing around the moon. This gentle outer sign of His Holiness’ inner qualities was clearly visible to all present. When His Holiness was in Tibet, it was common for the public to witness such signs as these, and other signs far more extraordinary. However, because such verifiable displays of exceptional powers are rarely perceived by skeptical Westerners, their impact in the West was all the greater.

His Holiness travelled in the early days of the West’s encounter with Tibetan lamas—from 1974 through 1981, well before the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1989 put Tibet on the cultural map. In many cases, Westerners did not know what to make of this extraordinary being who inspired such obvious veneration and awe in Tibetans, yet who walked amongst them with such joyful ease. But through his mere presence and the teachings he gave with his every gesture, the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa delivered the Dharma directly to the hearts and minds of all he met—in life and in his exceptional death.

The Final Stage

It is generally explained that the principal way that buddhas perform enlightened activity in the world is through speech—public discourses, verbal explanations and oral instructions. His Holiness certainly did teach in these ways, but one of the hallmarks of his teaching was his ability to create experiences for others not only with his speech, but with his body and mind as well. When the Sixteenth Karmapa neared the end of his life, he elected to pass away in America. As he did, he used his physical illness as a glorious and deeply transformative teaching for his Western disciples as well as for the non-Buddhist medical staff who attended him.

The primary physician who attended His Holiness, Dr. Mitchell Levy, created a record of the medical events surrounding his passing away, seeking to make sense of the apparent discrepancies between what was scientifically possible and the empirical evidence that the entire medical staff was witness to. The following quotes are excerpted from that report, as published in Reginald Ray’s Secret of the Vajra World. The doctor relates the first medical interview with his “patient,” the Gyalwang Karmapa.

At the end, [His Holiness] said to me, ‘There is one thing that is very important for you to understand. If I am needed here to teach sentient beings, if I still have work to do here, then no disease will ever be able to overcome me. And if I am no longer really required to teach sentient beings, then you can tie me down, and I will not stay on this earth.’ This was certainly an interesting way to get introduced to one’s patient…

People there — the hospital staff as well as visitors-were just completely overwhelmed by him. Most of them were Christian, and none of them knew the first thing about Buddhism, but they had no hesitancy whatever in calling him His Holiness. They never once said, ‘Karmapa,’ it was always ‘His Holiness.’ The staff couldn’t stop talking about his compassion and about how kind he seemed. After four or five days, the surgeon—a Filipino Christian— … kept saying to me, ‘You know, His Holiness is not an ordinary man. He really doesn’t seem like an ordinary person.’ Just the force of his will and his presence were so powerful, that [everybody was] completely taken with it.

“… early on the day he actually died, we saw that his monitor had changed. The electrical impulses through his heart had altered in a way that indicated that it was starting to fail. And so we knew, the surgeons knew, that something was imminent…

“Then his heart stopped for about ten seconds. We resuscitated him, had a little trouble with his blood pressure, brought it back up, and then he was stable for about twenty-five minutes, thirty minutes, but it looked like he had had a heart attack. Then his blood pressure dropped all the way down. We couldn’t get it back up at all with medication. And we kept working, giving him medication, and then his heart stopped again. And so then we had to start pumping his chest and then, at that point, I knew that this was it. Because you could just see his heart dying in front of you on the monitor. But I felt that we needed to demonstrate our thoroughness as much as we could, to reassure the Rinpoches. So I kept the resuscitation going for almost forty-five minutes, much longer than I normally would have. Finally, I gave him two amps of intra-cardiac epinephrine and adrenaline and there was no response. Calcium. No response. So we stopped and this was the point at which we finally gave up. I went outside to make the call to Trungpa Rinpoche to tell him that His Holiness had died. After that, I came back into the room, and people were starting to leave. By this time, His Holiness had been lying there for maybe fifteen minutes, and we started to take out the NG tube, and … all of a sudden I look and his blood pressure is 140 over 80. And my first instinct, I shouted out, ‘Who’s leaning on the pressure monitor?’ … Because I knew that for pressure to go up like that, someone would have to be leaning on it with… well, it wouldn’t be possible.

“Then a nurse almost literally screamed, ‘He’s got a good pulse! He’s got a good pulse!’

… His Holiness’ heart rate was 80 and his blood pressure was 140 over 80, and there was this moment in that room where I thought that I was going to pass out. And no one said a word. There was literally a moment of ‘This can’t be. This can’t be.’ A lot had happened with His Holiness, but this was clearly the most miraculous thing I had seen. … This was not just an extraordinary event. This would have been an hour after his heart had stopped and fifteen minutes after we had stopped doing anything…

To me, in that room, it had the feeling that His Holiness was coming back to check one more time: could his body support his consciousness?’ … Just the force of his consciousness coming back started the whole thing up again — I mean, this is just my simple-minded impression, but this is what it actually felt like, in that room.

“Shortly after we left the room, the surgeon came out and said, ‘He’s warm. He’s warm.’ And then … the nursing staff was saying, ‘Is he still warm?’ After all that had happened, they just accepted it. As much as all that had happened might have gone against their medical training, their cultural beliefs, and their religious upbringing, by this point they had no trouble just accepting what was actually occurring.”

His Holiness remained meditating in his hospital bed for three days, and then moved on to take his rebirth as the Seventeenth Karmapa. It was a mark of His Holiness’ wisdom and tremendous kindness toward his Western disciples that he opted to display his death process in a hospital in Chicago, USA. In the case of masters as highly attained as the Karmapa, after their body apparently ceases functioning, there are often external signs indicating that they are still in a meditative state, controlling the transition to their next life. In Tibetan monasteries it is customary to permit people to view such masters as they sit in post-mortem meditation, their bodies still supple and fragrant. Seeing what serious spiritual practice makes possible greatly enhances viewers’ faith, and also demystifies the death process. For many Westerners, death is dreaded and feared, and the possibility of understanding it as a positive opportunity seems out of the question. Yet during what would have been a debilitating and painful process for any ordinary person, His Holiness remained thoroughly focused on the doctors, nurses and visitors surrounding him, and disinterested in the details of his own physical condition. Choosing to remain in the hospital to the end, the Gyalwang Karmapa’s warmth and joy were thrown into relief against the sterile clinical environment—vividly displaying the Buddhist truth that it is the mind that determines our experiences, and not our bodies or outer conditions. Enacting the Buddha’s teachings even with his final breath, the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa was every bit as extraordinary in death as he was in life.