The Karmapas Of Tibet by Brooke Webb


The 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje The numbers of beings pervading the universes are countless; although each of these have the Buddha nature, few have attained the Buddha's awakened state. Those doing so are considered more precious than any imagined perfection. The line of great reincarnate Lamas known as the "Karmapas," or "Black Hat Lamas," are the lineage holders of the profound teachings on enlightenment which started with the full realization of the great Indian Mahasiddha Tilopa. This school, founded by Marpa, is known today as the Karma Kagyu Lineage and is named after Karmapa himself. Karmapa means "one who performs the activity of a Buddha." The highest meditative insight transmitted through this lineage is called "Mahamudra" or "The Great Seal." Karmapa is known as the "knower of the three times" (past, present and future), and is renowned as the King of the Yogis of Tibet. He is also the very first Lama to consciously reincarnate in successive rebirths, thus beginning the "tulku" tradition. He always announces himself upon his birth and often leaves detailed information for his closest students on how to find his next incarnation.

Karmapa's activity began so long ago that his enlightenment occurred in what is considered an entirely different eon than this one. During a life time as the youngest son of a king named Yulko Chong, the future Karmapa spent his life meditating in solitude. He became known as Drangsong (Rishi) Koenpo Chen. It is said that his profound samadhi in meditation lasted for years upon years. Such was the power generated by his realization that the dakinis (sky dancers), female wisdom holders of Buddhist tantric teachings, in order to pay homage to him, each took one of their hairs and from this formed a black pentangular crown which they placed on his head. This wisdom crown is to this day inseparable from each of the Karmapas' incarnations and is occasionally seen by those holding profound insight.

Karmapa spent many lifetimes in India as a yogi before being recognized openly as the "Karmapa." He was one of the closest students of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and was known then as Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig (the Bodhisattva of compassion). In another life he was the "Great Brahmin" Mahasiddha named Saraha. The coming of the Karmapas was predicted by Buddha Shakyamuni in the Samadhirajasutra. It was said that 1600 years after Buddha's passing, a man of great spiritual attainment and infinite compassion would be born. He would spread the Buddha's Dharma over many successive incarnations and be known as Karmapa or the "Man of Karma." The great Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), who first propagated Buddhism in Tibet, also foretold Karmapa's coming. After Marpa helped generate the "second spreading" of Buddhist teachings in Tibet, he was succeeded by the great yogi Milarepa and he by Gampopa.

The foremost disciple of Gampopa was the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. A good deal of his time was spent meditating in mountain retreats. During one nine month retreat he wore only the traditional cotton cloth of a "Repa" and developed the siddhi of inner heat (Tummo) while fasting and meditating. During a period of several months he meditated in a hut so small he could only fit into it in the meditation posture. After quickly attaining a fully realized state his teacher Gampopa recognized him as the Karmapa whom the Buddha had predicted. Following the instructions of his teacher, Dusum Khyenpa traveled all over Tibet teaching. He spent three summers and winters on a rock at a place called Yabzong and here obtained the power of being able to pass through solid rocks and mountains. It is said that the dakinis came and fed him at a place called "flat white boulder," one of the seats of Guru Padmasambhava. Karmapa built many monasteries during this period. In his 56th year (1165) he built the large Kampo Nesnang Monastery. This place is noted for the huge rock upon which the Tibetan letter "Ka" spontaneously appears whenever a new Karmapa incarnates into this world. Such a letter appeared in the last years of Dusum Khyenpa's life. He declared there would be many future Karmapas. After distributing all his accumulated possessions, Karmapa passed away in the year 1193 at the age of 84. Many auspicious relics were recovered from his funeral pyre.

The second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1204 - 1283) was the first recognized Tulku (incarnate teacher). As most Karmapas do, Dusum Khyenpa had left exact oral instructions with a group of his students, detailing the facts concerning the finding and recognition of his next incarnation. The fame of this Karmapa for his extraordinary powers was such that word reached the Chinese imperial court. Kublai Khan himself became totally fascinated by the spiritual power of the Karmapa. Seven years after leaving Kublai Khan's court due to the political infighting taking place there, Kublai Khan attempted to forcibly return the Karmapa to him. He sent 30, 000 troops to arrest him. When they came into Karmapa's view, he used a two finger mudra to paralyze the entire army. After freeing them, they took a hold of him and attempted to tie him up. They found that Karmapa's body had no substance and the task proved impossible. Karmapa was made to drink poison but his body became a stream of blinding light. They pushed him off a precipice but he glided down to a lake below upon which he simply floated. Karmapa was then burned and streams of water came out of his body extinguishing the flames. Kublai Khan finally became Karmapa's student, bestowing all honor on him. In fact the emperors of China remained close and devoted students of the Karmapa through his tenth incarnation.

The third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284 - 1339) was known as a supreme meditator and gave new intellectual understanding and insight into Buddhist practice. He also unified the Kagyu Mahamudra and Maha Ati teachings of the Nyingma lineages. It is predicted that 1000 Buddhas will appear in this eon. The third Karmapa made the prediction that he himself would be the sixth of these Buddhas. This prediction of Karmapa's attaining Buddhahood is also found in the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni in a sutra entitled "The Fortunate Eon." The historical Buddha Shakyamuni was the fourth Buddha and Maitreya will be the fifth.

The fifth Karmapa, Teshin Shegpa (1384-1415) was invited to visit by the emperor of China, Yung Lo. During the first 22 days of his visit to the imperial court Karmapa displayed different miracles each day. The emperor was so impressed he became a devout meditator and developed deep insight. During a ceremony, Yung Lo saw the black crown hovering above Karmapa's head. He realized this was a profound blessing and indicated a level of his own spiritual insight. With Karmapa's permission he had made a perfect replica of this crown in order that all people would benefit from its sight. This crown was still in the possession of the 16th Karmapa until his death. It is presently believed to be held at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, which is currently guarded by the Sikkimese army due to conflict within the Kagyu Lineage. Even this replica is said to have the power of transmitting enlightenment on sight.

The eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (1507-1554), like most of the Karmapas, sat up and declared immediately after birth, "I am the Karmapa, I am the Karmapa." At age one and a half months he again declared "Emaho, don't doubt me, for I am the Karmapa." At four months of age he told one of his disciples from his past incarnation which exact teachings he had given him during that time. At five years of age he was asked by Lama Sonam Rinchen who he really was. He replied "Sometimes I am Padmasambhava, sometimes Saraha and other times I am Karmapa." As in the case with the present Karmapa there was at the time of Mikyo Dorje's youth another candidate presented as Karmapa. Upon being tested as to which were his previous possessions from a huge number of possibilities, Karmapa quickly chose the right ones and proved himself. Mikyo Dorje was an accomplished artist, excelling in painting, carving and casting, he formed a school of thanka (scroll) painting. Indeed, the statues he cast have uncanny human qualities. One of his statues, a self-portrait, presently kept at Rumtek Monastery, is displayed along with a smaller piece of marble left over from the block being sculpted. This extra piece Karmapa simply squashed into his hand and today is in the perfect shape of having been molded into his fingers. A story is told that once, upon casting an image of himself, he asked if it was a good likeness. It is said that the statue replied that of course it was.

The 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (The Wishfulfilling Jewel) was born in Denchok in the Derge Province of Eastern Tibet in 1924. He was found by a search party exactly according to the prediction letter left behind by his previous incarnation. When the 16th letter "Ka," appeared on the rock at Kampo Nesnang it was larger than all the others.

The 16th Karmapa began his training at Palpung Monastery, he received the teachings on Tantra, Sutra, the Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra. His main teachers were Situ Pema Wangchuk and Jamgon Palden Kyentse Oser. In 1931, at the age of seven, the Karmapa performed his first Black Crown Ceremony. Thousands were witness to this amazing event. It was said that a rain of flowers fell and the sky filled with rainbows.

During Karmapa's travels to numerous monasteries in and around Tibet, he visited Lhasa to meet H.H. the 13th Dalai Lama. As Karmapa did prostrations, the Dalai Lama asked Karmapa why he had not removed his hat as was custom in Tibet. The Dalai Lama did not realize he was actually seeing Karmapa's spiritual crown, which remains above his head at all times. Even while still young, the great power of the 16th Karmapa became known far and wide. For example, at the age of twelve it was recorded that he took his attendant's sword and tied it into a knot.

The 16th Karmapa performed his powerful activity throughout Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, India and parts of China, at times studying with great teachers, giving teachings and Black Crown ceremonies for the benefit of all beings. The Karmapa wears the physical copy of his spiritual crown during the Black Crown ceremony. While wearing this crown, he becomes one with the Buddha of compassion, Loving Eyes (Chenrezig), transmitting an intensely strong field of blessings, opening for those present the deepest levels of insight and wisdom. It is said that the sight of this crown brings liberation from all lower states of existence.

While most reincarnates are discovered by various divination methods, Karmapa would envision the rebirth of the high reincarnate lamas through his meditation. Once, he sent a group of his students to find the reincarnation of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. He gave the exact location, birth time and number of people in the family, which was seven. The exploration party returned from the long journey to Lhasa, explaining to Karmapa that everything he had said was correct but that there were only six persons in the family. Karmapa explained to them that the unaccounted for family member was to be found inside the mother, which proved to be true.

In 1959 Karmapa alerted all his followers to the danger of Chinese occupation in Tibet which was then in full force. Accordingly, in February of that year Karmapa took 160 of his followers from his seat at Tsurphu Monastery, and proceeded to Bhutan. They took with them the most sacred treasures and relics of Tsurphu which had been preserved there over the centuries. Certain of Karmapa's students were freedom fighters against the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Soldiers from this small force report having been fired upon at close range by Chinese soldiers. These fighters were wearing protection belts from Karmapa and were taking special protection pills every day, given them by him. They reported that the bullets passed through and burned their clothes but did not penetrate their bodies. During the escape across the snowy mountains to India, members of Karmapa's entourage reported seeing Chinese war planes flying overhead where the large band of red robed monks traversing the snow should surely have been spotted. However, the pilots appeared never to see them.

Karmapa was a beautiful man. One cannot describe his qualities with words.
He was a real Chenrezig. In his presence, everybody's mind was changing.
Everybody developed instant devotion to him. When one saw him once, one wanted to see him again and again.

- Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche

The royal family of Sikkim, loyal followers of the Karmapa, offered him a permanent place in their country. With financial assistance from the governments of Sikkim and India, Karmapa's new seat, Rumtek Monastery, was built by 1966. In 1974 the Karmapa made the first of several visits to the West, including Europe, Canada, and the USA, where he again gave several Black Crown ceremonies.

The commanding presence of the 16th Karmapa created profound and lasting blessings on all people coming in contact with him. He himself said that a Buddha should be known by his laugh and it was said that when Karmapa laughed, which he did all the time, one would hear him several houses away. He would know ahead of time whenever someone was approaching, regardless of how far away, always making preparation for their arrival. At times, he demonstrated a complete ability to communicate with animals. During a course in Europe a large black bird came to the window where Karmapa was teaching and tapped his beak. Karmapa said to let this bird in. It came straight to Karmapa who then announced that this bird had told him that two other birds were trapped in a barn a few miles down the road and he sent two people to check this out. Upon their arrival at the barn they found the two birds and freed them. During a stop over at an airport Karmapa released a couple of hundred of his birds who often traveled with him, much to the anxiety of those keeping his party on schedule. Karmapa explained that his birds needed exercise. Right before his departure Karmapa clapped his hands, the birds flew back to their cages and no one was delayed.

It was on a visit to America whilst in Chicago, in 1981, that Karmapa passed away. During the seven weeks between his death and his cremation, Karmapa's body spontaneously shrank to the size of a small child. He was cremated at Rumtek in Sikkim. After his cremation, incredible relics were found inside the cremation stupa. Some bones from his body had formed themselves into perfect Buddha images. During the cremation a circular rainbow appeared around the sun in a clear blue sky. While Karmapa's body was burning, an object rolled from the flames to the edge of the stupa where Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche was standing. This object was quickly recovered and proved to be Karmapa's eyes, tongue and heart. They had come together, presented as a gift by Karmapa as relics to be preserved. Traditionally such an occurrence indicates that body, speech and mind have come together to be saved as relics, imparting intense enlightened transmission and blessing for all beings into the future. This event is common only to the highest of accomplished Buddhist yogis. The exact same thing occurred during the cremation of Gampopa and the second Karmapa.

The Recognition of the 17th Karmapa
The search for the 16th Karmapa's reincarnation has been fraught with obstacles of every kind. However, the following is the story of how he was found, recognized and came to freedom from Tibet. It is told as closely as possible to the known facts, however some information is as yet not revealed.

Directly after the death of the 16th Karmapa, Shamar Rinpoche, one of Karmapa's primary lineage holders, instinctively contacted a certain high Kagyu Lama regarding Karmapa's rebirth. This person did not give Shamar Rinpoche any information at the time. However, according to Shamar Rinpoche this person stayed on his mind constantly. Later several people contacted Shamar Rinpoche regarding this Lama and they also suspected he was holding a letter or information from the 16th Karmapa.

In 1985 Shamar Rinpoche was staying in New Delhi, India, building Karmapa's new monastery, the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute. He was visited by a great Sakya Lama, Chobgye Tri Rinpoche, who is from Kathmandu, Nepal. Chobgye Tri Rinpoche expressed an urgent need to meet with Shamar Rinpoche and gave him the following information: "Shortly before the late Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje passed away, I had a dream early one morning. Karmapa was wearing the dharma robes and circumambulating the stupa at Bodhnath, looking very frail and weak. In the dream, I felt sad and cried. Shortly after that, the Karmapa passed away." He went on to tell Shamar Rinpoche that just a few days before he came to Delhi he had had yet another dream about His Holiness early one morning: "His Holiness was dressed in the yellow dharma robes and was walking around a stupa. The color of his robes were very clear and radiant. He was wearing the Gampopa hat and was very cheerful." At noon on the same day that he had this dream, Chobgye Tri Rinpoche was visited by a relative from Lhasa who brought a photograph of a young child who was quite well known in the area of Lhasa to have said, "I am the Karmapa."

This was the reason Chobgye Tri Rinpoche had come to see Shamar Rinpoche in Delhi. When he was told this, Shamar Rinpoche felt that he should try to find out about this young child. During that time Chobgye Tri Rinpoche had told Shamar Rinpoche, "You must not make a decision on the basis of what I have told you. Of course the decision must be based on instructions left behind and on the visions and experiences of highly qualified spiritual masters. However, I felt that I should come and tell you this, since you are the Shamarpa. It is known in the history of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism that the Shamarpa lamas and the Karmapa lamas are regarded as inseparable."

A photograph was given to Shamar Rinpoche showing the boy in question, who was approximately three years of age. In the beginning of 1987 Shamar Rinpoche asked Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche, who is renowned as a modern day Mahasiddha, to visit this boy in Tibet without letting anybody know that Shamar Rinpoche had asked him to do so. The boy was living in an area of Lhasa called Bakhor along with his family. The father is a recognized reincarnate Lama of the Nyingma lineage called Mipham Rinpoche. The children of his family were already well known as being extraordinarily gifted.

Lopon Tsechu met with the family without anyone noticing what he was up to and returned to Delhi with detailed information. Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche reported that the father, Mipham Rinpoche, is apparently the reincarnation of a great Nyingma master who had also been connected with the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche found out that the father was in possession of the religious objects and letters owned by the previous Mipham Rinpoche. Among these possessions, apparently was a letter written by his predecessor which says that in his next incarnation a son, "Rigpe Yeshe Dorje" will be born to him. The portion of the name, "Rigpe Dorje," can be connected with the late Karmapa, "Rangjung Rigpe Dorje." Since the father would not part with the letter, Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche contacted another lama who was a close friend of the father, who convinced him to allow the letter to be copied by hand. The original letter is still held by Mipham Rinpoche, and Shamar Rinpoche was brought a verbatim handwritten copy by Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche.

The information acquired thus far Shamar Rinpoche chose to keep to himself and actually sent a second person to check out the young boy. This person returned with the same information but with the addition of one interesting story. Apparently the child, whose name was Tendzin Khyentse, was taken out one day by a close friend of Mipham Rinpoche to the Jokhang Temple in Bakhor which has a very famous Buddha statue. As the friend was carrying around the young son of Mipham Rinpoche and circumambulating the temple, he noticed that a crowd had gathered, so they went inside. Here, a lama, clearly of some repute, was painting gold onto the face of the Buddha statue. The visitors were told that this lama had come from India. The friend of the father put the child down and the boy immediately ran up to the lama and asked him, "Do you recognize me?" The lama replied, "No." The child returned and the two went back to the boy's parents. After the friend of the father told them about the lama from India, the family became curious. They made inquiries and found out that it was Gyaltsap Rinpoche, one of Karmapa's regents and a renowned Kagyu lineage holder. They went to meet him and were going to bring their son with them, but the boy told them, "I don't want to meet him, because he does not recognize who I am." This was the story brought back by the second person who Shamar Rinpoche had sent to investigate.

Yet a third person was secretely sent by the Shamarpa to Lhasa to investigate the child. Mipham Rinpoche always kept an open house, since he was continually being consulted for Mos (predictions) for which he was quite famous in the area. Upon entering the house the inquirer encountered the young boy who immediately said, "you have come to look for me." Feeling that this boy may actually be the new Karmapa, Shamar Rinpoche went into a meditation retreat. In the early morning of the seventh day of the retreat, Rinpoche reported that the late Karmapa appeared to him in a dream. The Karmapa was sitting on a low seat and performing a particular ritual for the sake of those who are deceased in order to liberate them or for those who are seriously ill. The Karmapa then told Shamar Rinpoche, "I have liberated the person I have set out to liberate. I will now come wherever you want me to."

The next day Shamar Rinpoche reported that he made continuous wishes to his yidam deity and later had a second dream. In this dream Shamar Rinpoche was consecrating a Buddha statue. During such ceremonies it is customary for the lama to throw rice toward the object being consecrated, in this case the Buddha statue. The rice grains which he scattered multiplied and became a rain of rice grains falling on the Buddha statue. In addition, behind the statue were innumerable other Buddha statues and in their midst was an enormous butter lamp filled to the brim with butter. In the center of this lamp, in place of the flame, there was something that Shamar Rinpoche described as being a bulb of white luminous light."

On the basis of this dream Shamar Rinpoche decided to visit Lhasa himself. Upon reaching Tibet, it quickly became evident that he was being followed. Pretending to be a tourist Shamar Rinpoche visited a tourist place called Namtso and quickly afterward returned to Kathmandu. Here Shamar Rinpoche sent a trusted colleague, Lama Tsultrim Dawa, to perform various oracles at different sacred sites, including a rock face from which an image of the enlightened goddess Tara has spontaneously emerged. Each prediction indicated the confirmation that the boy "Tendzin Khyentse," from Lhasa is the Karmapa.

Based on Shamar Rinpoche's decision, Tendzin Khyentse was recognized as the Karmapa and brought to New Delhi, India. He is now undertaking a full spiritual and academic training under various teachers at the KIBI.

In March 1996 the author, along with several others, travelled to India where we personally met Karmapa Thaye Dorje. This event proved to be a deeply enriching experience for everyone. The Karmapa, although only thirteen years old, conducted himself with deep poise and confidence. Unlike a boy, Karmapa had adopted his leadership role in a completely mature and adult-like fashion. He could be seen giving advice and directing the affairs of people often four times his own age. His gentle self assurance appeared completely natural and uncontrived. One could tangibly feel the deep respect afforded him by his attendants and teachers. Any doubts about whether or not he is the Karmapa were completely dispelled from receiving his blessing which he transmits by gently touching the top of one's head. The world radiated with joy and vivid clarity from his blessing, the quality of which can not be expressed in words. Karmapa received both large groups and individuals one after another, often for hours at a time. He never appeared to lose the soft and concentrated composure which always seemed to permeate his presence.

During the visit, a ceremony was held to honor the Karmapa and acknowledge his supreme qualities. Representatives from all over the world conferred on him the gifts appropriate to a universal monarch. Offerings representing body speech and mind were given him which he returned in kind. He then gave his very first empowerment, that of the Thousand Armed Chenrezig (the Buddha of Compassion.) This formally symbolized the beginning of his activity on every level to completely benefit beings throughout the world. The 16th Karmapa, whose presence had been a mountain of power, had been asked if the 17th Karmapa would be as powerful. He implied that his next incarnation would also have a strongly pacifying presence because the world at that time would have become so disturbed.

This story about the Karmapas' lives is of course totally abbreviated. The colorful details of all his lives would cover volumes. The contents of these writings would seem so fantastic as to almost appear far fetched and beyond the imagination of the average healthy skeptic. Karmapa's massive power field carries a fantastic blessing which is tangible even today for all sharing his strong wish to benefit others without exception.

BUDDHISM TODAY, Vol.2, 1996. Copyright ©1996 Diamond Way Buddhist Centers USA.