HH XVI Karmapa

His Holiness the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, was the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. He was born on August 14, 1924 in Denkhok in the Dergé district of Kham (Eastern Tibet), near the Yangtze River. His discovery was based on a prediction letter that had been entrusted by his predecessor to Jampal Tsultrim, the personal attendant of the XVth Karmapa. Once found, Rangjung was taken to Palpung Monastery for training and novice ordination.

In 1931, at the age of seven, the new Karmapa performed his first Vajra Crown ceremony. At age thirteen he journeyed to Tsurphu Monastery, traditional seat of the Karmapas, where he received full ordination—the “hair-cutting ceremony”—from Thubten Gyatso, the XIIIth Dalai Lama. During his subsequent education in Tsurphu the Karmapa received all the Kagyu transmissions, as well as being given extensive training in the Sakya lineage teachings by HH Sakya Trizin. He spent much of the time between 1941 and 1944 in retreat, after which he began working to strengthen relationships with neighboring Buddhist states in the Himalayan region, as well as with India. During a pilgrimage in southern Tibet, he accepted an invitation to visit the kingdom of Bhutan from His Highness Jigme Dorje Wangchuk and in 1947 he accompanied Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama, on a pilgrimage to India.

His Holiness’ education continued with Mindrolling Trichen of the Nyingma School and was concluded by his receiving the Kalachakra initiation of the Gelugpas, a transmission that marked his having been given all the most important teachings of the major Vajrayana Buddhist schools. The Karmapa continued his predecessor’s activities, travelling and teaching throughout Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, India and parts of China. He also assumed responsibility for locating many reborn tulkus.

Political circumstances altered Tibet radically with the 1950 takeover by the Chinese. The Karmapa, along with HH the Dalai Lama and other high lamas and Tibetan government officials, attended talks in Beijing in 1954 to attempt to negotiate a settlement. After some initial progress the talks broke down when, in 1959, the Chinese government insisted on land reform measures that would have dispossessed the monasteries. Foreseeing the communist Chinese invasion of Tibet and the inevitable destruction of Buddhist institutions, His Holiness informed the Dalai Lama of his intention to leave Tibet in early 1959. In February of that year the Karmapa, accompanied by an entourage of 160 attendants and students, fled Tsurphu Monastery and proceeded overland to Bhutan, taking the lineage’s most sacred treasures and relics with him.

After a journey of three weeks, the party were met in northern Bhutan by senior Bhutanese government officials. Shortly thereafter Tashi Namgyal, the Chogyal (king) of Sikkim, offered land to His Holiness near a site where the XIVth Karmapa had established a monastery. The property was accepted and it was there that Rumtek Monastery, the Karmapa’s new seat, was built in 1966. At that time, as part of an initiative by the Tibetan government-in-exile to consolidate the organizations of Tibetan Buddhism, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje became the first formal head of the entire Kagyu School, although the earlier Karmapas had long been considered its most prestigious and authoritative lamas.

After meeting Ven Ananda Bodhi—later Namgyal Rinpoche—first in 1968 and for a second time in 1970, His Holiness made the prediction that the future of Vajrayana Buddhism lay in the West. Soon afterwards he sent his representative, Lama Gendün, to Europe to begin establishing Kagyu centres there, and in 1974 he embarked on his first world tour, travelling to Europe, Canada and the United States, giving several Vajra Crown ceremonies, and many Dharma teachings. In mid-January 1975, he flew to Rome and met with His Holiness Pope Paul VI, and in 1976 he embarked on an even more extensive tour, giving teachings and empowerments and visiting nearly every major city in Europe. Finally, in 1980 he began his last world tour, giving teachings, interviews and empowerments in South East Asia, Greece, England and the US. On November 5, 1981 His Holiness the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, passed away in a hospital in Zion, Illinois, near Chicago.

Doctors and nurses at the hospital remarked on his kindness and how he seemed more concerned with their welfare than his own. One doctor was also struck by the his refusal of pain medication, and the absence of any outward signs of the intense pain that most patients in his condition report. Upon his death, against hospital procedure but in keeping with Tibetan tradition and with special permission from the State of Illinois, the Karmapa’s body was left in the hospital for three days and his heart remained warm during this time. The hospital’s Chief of Staff Radulfo Sanchez had no medical explanation for this.

The XVIth Karmapa was a living example of the great heart of awakening, and he helped immeasurably to foster the transmission of Vajrayana Buddhism to the West. He established Dharma centres and monasteries in many places around the world that continue to protect, preserve, and promulgate the Buddha’s teachings.