The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa

The following is an extract from the chapter of "Karmapa" about
the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa:

The past thirty years have brought Tibetan Buddhism to the world at large. It is as though the tremendous wave of inspiration that carried the Buddha's teachings from India to Tibet in the eleventh century had, 900 later later, surged back off that land's rocks and mountains onto the entire planet. This occurred due to what was, in fact, the gravest of horrors for the Tibetan people: the total destruction of their Buddhism by the events leading up to China's "cultural revolution". Yet through it, teachings safeguarded behind the Himalayan wall for almost a millenium have emerged to contribute to humankind's assets at a critical point in its history. It has been a cruelly expensive yet exquisitely beautiful gift from Tibet 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 our 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 west.

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?". 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 ...

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Last Updated: 30 August 1996