Finding the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa

The following is an extract from the chapter in "Karmapa" about the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa:

The parents of the present Karmapa, Dondrup and Loga, are nomads. Their life tending the family herd of some eighty yaks takes them from grazing area to grazing area, according to the humours of the four seasons. They are respected members of a group of some seventy nomadic families; more than four hundred persons, deeply-tanned with apple-red cheeks, whose encampments are a travelling village of felt tents, made from long yak hair.

As is customary, Dondrup and Loga dedicated their first son to their local Nyingmapa monastery—Kampagar, one of Khamtrul Rinpoche's monasteries—to be a future monk. They subsequently had five children, all daughte He gave them some advice, which they followed as best they could. They were to do a hundred thousand refuge prayers, feed beggars, feed the fish in the rivers and go on pilgrimage to Lhasa. These things they did as best they could but, as destiny would have it, any benefit they produced was not to take effect immediately and their next child was yet another daughter.

By the time they were contemplating another attempt at having a son, Karma Norzang had died and so they consulted Amdo Palden, the yogi abbot of Kalek, a Karma Kagyu monastery which formerly belonged to the King of Lhatok. At first Amdo Palden was not sure he could help but, upon further reflection, said that it may be possible for them to have a son but that they must promise to place him, should they have one, in his charge. They agreed to this. His way of helping was to confer empowerment upon them.

During her next pregnancy, Loga dreamt of three white cranes offering her a bowl of yoghurt. A brilliant golden letter sat atop the bowl and signified her forthcoming son. The cranes told her that they were sent by Guru Rinpoche and that the golden letter was the recognition letter for her son but that she should keep this information secret until the right time came. At another time she dreamt of eight auspicious symbols wreathed in rainbow light emanating from her heart. The night before the birth, in late June, 1985, the father saw rainbows over the tent and was surprised, for the sun had already disappeared behind the mountains. The baby was born the next day without pain or dificulty, just before the first golden rays of sunlight burst into the tent. At the same time, a cuckoo landed on the yak-hair tent and sang.

Two days later, the celestial sound of a conch shell, prophesied by the Sixteenth Karmapa in his letter, was heard by all the members of the nomadic community. Those outside their tents thought it came from the inside, and vice versa. Some thought a whole monastic orchestra must be accompanying a high lama but none could be seen. It continued through the afternoon for some two hours. Unknown flowers blossomed in the area and, some while later, three suns were seen in the heavens, a rainbow arching over the middle one. This last phenomenon was widely witnessed throughout eastern Tibet.

When Dondrup and Loga went to Amdo Palden, to request a Buddhist name for their son, as is the Tibetan custom, he told them that this very special child should not be named by any ordinary abbot and that only a very great being, such as the Tai Situpa, could name him and that they should wait until such time as this proved possible. For need of some provisional name, they used one that their daughter said she was given for him by a magpie at a riverside, just after the birth, "Apo Gaga", meaning "happy, happy brother". As a very young child, Apo Gaga was obviously a very special being, gifted with clairvoyance and authority. He was able, for instance, to tell people where to find lost sheep or cattle. As one might expect, his parents' local monastery of Kampagar wanted to care for him and to give him the special training which would make him a lama to help many beings. But at that point, Amdo Palden reminded the parents of their promise and took him under his own care at Kalek monastery. Being more distant from their encampments, this was less convenient but they nevertheless honoured their commitment and placed Apo Gaga in his care. When asked about the boy, a local oracle, gifted in a form of divination known as "mirror seeing", saw the form of a white conch with a clockwise spiral. He predicted that Apo Gaga would greatly benefit sentient beings but that his destiny would not become clear until he was eight years old.

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Last Updated: 30 August 1996