The Life of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa

Every Karmapa manifests remarkable qualities. According to the needs of their students and society in general they demonstrate aspects of the nature of enlightenment. The life of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, attested to the true meaning of “Karmapa”, which is “Activity of All Buddhas”.

Under his leadership, the Karma Kagyu lineage not only survived the escape from Tibet of most of the high Buddhist teachers — but thrived. The Karma Kagyu lineage spread all around the world. The Buddhist monasteries, institutes, and centers that the 16th Karmapa established grew and now offer Buddhist methods to people in India, Asia, and across the West.

The 16th Karmapa was a great master who demonstrated intuitive wisdom, joy, and loving kindness, his compassionate activity for others being beyond words or concepts. He was such a highly respected teacher across the Himalayas — including to the royal families of Sikkim and Bhutan — that masters of the other lineages would also call upon him for help and advice.

A major achievement of his was to resurrect the lineage of the Shamarpas. For political reasons, the reincarnations of the Shamarpas (which is the second-oldest reincarnate lineage in Tibetan Buddhism after the Karmapas), had been banned from formal acknowledgement by the Tibetan government. Throughout the 170-year ban, previous Karmapas had quietly recognised successive Shamarpas and trained them as spiritual lineage holders.

The 16th Karmapa informally recognised his nephew, Mipham Chokyi Lodro, when he was six years old. As he wished to formally enthrone him, the 16th Karmapa had appealed to the Tibetan Government. In 1957, while they were still in Tibet, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama dissolved the legal obstacles and approved the recognition. Shamar Rinpoche was officially enthroned in 1963 in Sikkim, and continued to stay with the 16th Karmapa until the latter’s death in 1981.

In March 1994, in accordance with tradition, the 14th Shamarpa, Mipham Chokyi Lodro, in turn recognised Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa. Shamar Rinpoche passed away in June 2014.

The life and legacy of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa lives on through his reincarnation, Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa.
The remarkable life story of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa is presented here. You can also use the links below to navigate to a particular period in his life.


Birth & youth Pilgrimage
In China & India
Flight from Tibet Rumtek Bhutan & India
In the West America and Europe The passing of Karmapa

Karmapa’s birth and youth

Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, was born into a noble family on the fifteenth day of the sixth month of the Male Wood Rat Year (1924) at Denkhok near Derge, eastern Tibet. His father’s name was Tsewang Norbu and his mother was called Kalzang Choden. It is said that while still in his mother’s womb, the baby could be heard reciting the mantra of Chenresig (Skt: Avalokiteshvara).

Two great Buddhist masters prophesied that a bodhisattva was about to be born, and advised the Karmapa’s parents that it would be auspicious if he were born outside the palace. One day, shortly before the birth, his mother noticed that her belly had become completely flattened, as if she was not pregnant at all.

She proceeded to the camp that had been set up on a hill behind their palace, and at sunrise the next morning she felt a great heaviness and her womb began to swell very rapidly. Soon afterwards the baby was born. Many rainbows appeared all around. It is said that when the child was born he took seven steps, saying, “Mother, Mother! I am going away!” All the water in the offering-basins had turned into milk. Realising the importance of the birth, the family let it be known that a girl had been born, in order to protect the child from ill-wishers.

In the meantime, Situ Tulku and Jamgon Kongtrul Tulku had opened the letter of prediction left by the 15th Karmapa and found the following detailed instructions:
“East of Tsurphu, close by a river, in a place that long ago had belonged to Pawo Denma Yulgyal Tokgod and to the Minister of Ling Kesar, on the Pal hill, decorated with the letters “A” and “thup”, is a house made of earth, belonging to a royal and religious family. The birth will take place there on the fifteenth day of the sixth month of the rat year.”

Both Situ Tulku and Jamgon Kongtrul Tulku had clear visions of the Athup palace and sent off a party for the new incarnation. Upon their arrival, the party heard of the birth of the remarkable child, in conditions exactly as had been predicted in the letter. The search was over. Thus the sixteenth Karmapa was recognised. He was a child of extraordinary natural insight; if horses or cattle were missing from the area he could always give an exact description of the place where they could be found.

When Karmapa was seven years old, Situ Tulku and Jamgon Kongtrul Tulku visited the palace and performed his primary ordination. A ceremonial empowerment of Vajravarahi was completed and on the twenty-seventh day of the first month of the Female Iron Sheep Year (1931), the young incarnation was ordained as a novice monk. Then Khyentse Rinpoche, Zimpon Legshe Gyaltsen and Donyer Gyaltsen Zangkyong together offered the 16th Karmapa his ceremonial robes and hat.

In the same year he was taken to the Palpung monastery where the enthronement ceremony took place and thousands of pilgrims gathered to pay homage to the Karmapa. Later he traveled to Tsurphu, visiting many monasteries and places of pilgrimage on the way. Here, Karmapa performed the Black Crown ceremony for the first time in this lifetime. The sky was filled with rainbows. Thousands were witness to this auspicious event.

His Holiness the 16th Karmapa traveled to Lhasa to meet His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama, who performed his hair-cutting ceremony. At their first meeting, Karmapa was wearing his “Ne Shu” hat, but the Dalai Lama saw another hat on top of it and pointed this out to his chief minister. When Karmapa performed the traditional prostrations he was seen to take off this small hat, but afterwards the Dalai Lama asked why he had not taken off the other hat as well, as it was customary to be bare-headed on such an occasion. All those present protested that he had indeed been bare-headed. Then it was realized that the Dalai Lama must have seen the subtle Bodhisattva-hat, visible only to those of the highest spiritual attainment, and had thought that everyone else could see it also.

The 16th Karmapa returned to Tsurphu monastery, where a second enthronement ceremony was performed. He studied for four years and often told his teacher about his previous incarnations. In 1935, at the age of twelve, the young Karmapa traveled to Kham, to Eastern Tibet. The party reached Tardzi Chutsen, the hot springs, and stopped to rest and bathe in the curative waters. It was the middle of winter, yet it is reported that many snakes suddenly started crawling out from between the rocks. The 16th Karmapa rushed into their midst and was soon covered in them. He started to dance, saying, “I am the King of the Snakes!” Everyone was terrified and begged him to stop, but he only laughed and did not seem to be at all worried. Presently the snakes unwound themselves and went back into the hot springs. (In Tibetan Buddhism, non-human spirits called Nagas are thought to sometimes appear in the form of snakes).

The party reached Shakshu Kar, where Drukchen Paljor Rinpoche came to receive the Karmapa. They started to joke together about their respective miraculous powers and suddenly the 16th Karmapa took a sword from his attendant’s scabbard and tied a knot in the blade with his bare hands. Paljor Rinpoche was amazed and did not offer to compete.

Paljor Rinpoche led the party to the Riwa Barma monastery, where a ceremony to Guru Padmasambhava was performed. At the end of the rite the offering cakes were thrown in the different directions in order to dispel evil forces. When they were thrown to the east, flames could be seen coming out of them. It was at this time that there was a sudden and unaccountable pause in Chinese aggression on the eastern borders of Tibet.

The 16th Karmapa reached Dil Yak monastery, where the party all stayed in tents, several of which were joined together. On one occasion he was seen high up off the ground, riding a deer along the ropes from one tent to another.

The party reached Radza Dzong in the mountains, where there was a great shortage of drinking water. The Lama Samten Gyamtso explained to the 16th Karmapa that the nearest spring was three miles away, and asked for a blessing to help the situation. The 16th Karmapa ordered that a wooden tub should be brought and placed near the monastery. Then he said he wanted to take a bath, so people carried water to fill it up. After the bath he told the attendants to empty the water onto the ground. Immediately it started to rain and a new spring broke forth from the spot where the tub had been standing. The water shortage of the monastery was resolved.

The 16th Karmapa reached Karma Gon, the monastery of the 1st Karmapa, and as he entered the great assembly hall, all the tops of the relic-stupas were seen to raise themselves, as if in a salute. Situ Tulku came to Karma Gon and took the 16th Karmapa to Palpung monastery, where he received the full Kagyu “Treasury” teachings and the oral transmission. They visited Dzong Sar monastery, where the Abbot Khyentse Chokyi Lodro requested that the Black Crown ceremony be performed. During this auspicious event Khyentse Rinpoche saw the 16th Karmapa in the form of Dusum Khyenpa, the 1st Karmapa, and the Black Crown was to be seen floating about eighteen inches above his head.

The ruler of China, General Chang Kai Shek, invited him to visit, but he did not accept the invitation. Instead, he returned to Palpung monastery, where he took the empowerments and initiations of the Drubtab Kuntu collection, and studied the Vinaya Sutra, the Prajnaparamita, the Abhidharma Kosha, the Chakrasamvara Tantra, the Kalachakra Tantra, and other teachings, under the guidance of Situ Tulku and Khyentse Rinpoche. He received all these teachings in their complete form.

In 1940, the Karmapa traveled to Tsurphu, visiting the Benchen monastery on the way. In that place there was a statue of the Protector Shingkyong, riding on a horse. As soon as the 16th Karmapa approached, the horse started to neigh, much to the surprise of everyone. He proceeded to Dam Chung, where the main deity offered him a large unpierced nine-eyed Zi-stone, a type of precious banded agate. For the next few years, the 16th Karmapa engaged himself in his study and meditations, while the monastery was extensively rebuilt.

Pilgrimage to Bhutan, Nepal, India

In 1944, the 16th Karmapa made a pilgrimage to Trag and Samye monasteries and then visited the Drowolung monastery in south Tibet, the seat of Marpa the Translator, where he had marvellous visions of Marpa, Jetsun Milarepa and Je Gampopa.

He received an invitation from His Royal Highness Jigme Wangchuk, King of Bhutan, asking him to visit his country. He travelled there and visited the Bumthang district of the North, where he was most warmly welcomed by the king. At the king’s request, the Black Crown ceremony was performed, and on this occasion the king saw the 16th Karmapa in many different miraculous forms. The 16th Karmapa visited the Champa and Kuje temples in Bumthang, northern Bhutan, where he offered a ceremonial silk scarf to the image of Guru Padmasambhava in the Kuje shrine. The silk scarf flew high up into the air and stuck itself onto the forehead of the large statue. From Bhutan, the 16th Karmapa returned to Tsurphu monastery.

Situ Tulku travelled from Kham to Tsurphu, meeting the 16th Karmapa there in 1945. At age twenty-three, the 16th Karmapa received the detailed final ordination, together with the initiations and explanations of the higher Kagyu teachings. In 1947 he left for the upper area of western Tibet, and Situ Tulku returned to his monastery in Kham.

The Karmapa visited several Kagyu monasteries and travelled on a pilgrimage to Nepal. There he was highly honoured by the Royal Family and performed the Black Crown ceremony. He visited all the main pilgrimage places in Nepal and bestowed his blessings upon thousands. For this journey, the King of Bhutan graciously delegated four high government officials to act as guides and interpreters.

From Nepal, the 16th Karmapa travelled to lndia via Lumbini — the birth-place of the Buddha — and on to Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, where he performed prostrations and prayers, and there were many fine ceremonies. The pilgrimage was continued to Ajanta, Ellora and finally to Kushinagara, the place of Lord Buddha’s final passing. In 1948, Karmapa travelled to Rewalsar, in the north west of India, where he spent several days and performed a special rite of Guru Padmasambhava. Thousands came to receive his blessings and the local people remarked that many white snakes appeared from a stone wall and that there were most unusual movements on the surface of the lake.

The party travelled on due north, via Kunu and Purang, to the holy mountain of Kailash. The 16th Karmapa made three complete circumambulations of this mountain, taking three days for each one, and also went around the holy lake of Manasarovar. He visited all the places of pilgrimage in the region. Then he travelled across Tibet, via the Mendong Kagyu monastery, and reached Tsurphu in 1948.

Travel to China & India

The 16th Karmapa invited Jamgon Kongtrul to come and give further teachings to him at Tsurphu. He received many teachings, including the Six Yogas of Naropa and the remaining oral transmission. In 1950, an epidemic of smallpox struck Tsurphu, so the 16th Karmapa performed the Vajra Kila rites. Soon the epidemic subsided and all those who were affected recovered quickly.

In 1952, he visited Chang in Northern Tibet and performed the Black Crown ceremony there. Afterwards, he returned to Tsurphu. In 1953, His Holiness the 16th Karmapa journeyed to Lhasa, where he had an audience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, and received the empowerment of Kalachakra from him. Upon his return to Tsurphu, he imparted the full empowerment, explanation and initiation of “Choling Ter” to Chong Rinpoche of the Mindroling Nyingmapa monastery. He also performed “Men-drub”, the consecration of medicinal plants, and distributed them widely.

In 1954 the 16th Karmapa visited China, together with the Dalai Lama, Chong Rinpoche and other high lamas. The lamas tried to negotiate with the Chinese government to improve relations between their countries and prevent a war, with limited success. After a stay in Peking and other parts of China, Karmapa returned to Tibet, traveling via many monasteries in Kham and Do, where he bestowed teachings and blessings. On this occasion he was asked to represent His Holiness the Dalai Lama who was himself unable to make the journey.

The Dalai Lama accepted the 16th Karmapa’s invitation to visit Tsurphu, during which visit the Black Crown ceremony was performed for him. In return, the Dalai Lama gave the empowerment of Chenresig. At this time fighting broke out in Eastern Tibet, between the Khampas and the Chinese. The Chinese sent a request for the 16th Karmapa to visit the area of Chamdo. He travelled there and advised both sides to refrain from any further hostilities.

While in Chamdo, the 16th Karmapa had numerous visitors and bestowed many empowerments and blessings to create stability in the area. Then he travelled to Lhasa, where he explained the situation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama before returning to his monastery at Tsurphu.

The 16th Karmapa travelled again on pilgrimage to India. He rested at the Dechen Chokor Ling monastery and again at the Kagyu monastery at Yatrong, near Sikkim. From Sikkim the party moved to India, visiting Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagara and Lumbini, where His Holiness the 16th Karmapa met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was also on pilgrimage there.

The journey continued to Nepal, where the 16th Karmapa visited the three holy places Bodhanath, Swayambhunath, and Namo Buddhaya and gave blessings and teachings to many thousands of people. He returned once more to India, where he visited many holy places of the South, including Ajanta, Ellora, and the great Stupa at Sanchi.

He continued on up to Kalimpong, near Darjeeling, where he was met by Her Royal Highness Azi Wangmo of Bhutan. He travelled to Sikkim, visiting the Potong monastery in the North. There the elderly lamas of the nearly ruined Rumtek monastery asked him to visit that place also. The 16th Karmapa told them that the time was not yet right, but that he would come later. He returned to Tsurphu, by which time further hostilities had started in the Do Med region of Kham.
The Ninth Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche and the Eighth Traleg Rinpoche both came to stay in Tsurphu. The 16th Karmapa recognized the twelfth incarnation of Gyaltsab Tulku, and performed his enthronement at Tsurphu monastery. From Sechen Kongtrul Rinpoche, the 16th Karmapa received the initiation of “Longchen Dzod Dun”, the teachings of Longchenpa along with the full explanations.

Fighting broke out all over Tibet and the 16th Karmapa was begged by his disciples to flee the country while he had the chance. He told them not to worry, saying “It is not necessary for me to leave yet. But if the time comes you can be assured that there will be no difficulty for me”. Sometime later he sent Situ Tulku and the ninth Sangye Nyenpa Tulku to Bhutan.

Flight from Tibet

The Chinese hostilities became intolerable and it was clear that possibilities for a peaceful existence were becoming very unlikely. Realising that the cause of the Dharma would best be served by escaping from the Chinese, the 16th Karmapa decided that he had no choice but to move to more peaceful areas.

Accordingly, in 1959, accompanied by an entourage of one hundred and sixty lamas, monks and laymen, the 16th Karmapa left Tsurphu monastery, the ancient seat of the Karmapas since the twelfth century, and proceeded towards Bhutan. Accompanying him were Shamar Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche and the fourth Ponlop Rinpoche, as well as many other incarnate lamas. Jamgon Kongtrul was already in Kalimpong, India, and Situ Tulku was in Bhutan.

Under the direction of the 16th Karmapa, the party was able to bring along the most precious of the sacred statues, ritual items, relics, icons, paintings, books and costumes that had been preserved at the Tsurphu monastery over the centuries. The hazardous and difficult journey, taking twenty-one days in all, passed through Lhodrag in southern Tibet, the birthplace of Marpa the Translator. Rites were performed at various sacred places on the way, for the welfare of all sentient beings and for the preservation of the Buddhist Dharma in the difficult times ahead.

The party arrived safely at Shabje Thang, in the Bumthang district of north Bhutan. They were most warmly welcomed by Her Royal Highness Tsultrim Palmo, the Aunt of His Royal Highness the King, and many ministers and high-ranking officials of the government. At this time, discussions were started with the Government of India, considering future plans for the resettlement of the 16th Karmapa and his many followers. It was decided that all should transit through Bhutan and settle temporarily in Dharamsala, North Western India.

There was one thought uppermost in the 16th Karmapa’s mind. Though in exile, he should not rest, but take responsibility for rekindling and revitalizing the torch of the Dharma, with the material and spiritual cooperation of Buddhists throughout the world. He felt that the Dharma had become like a lamp that needed a supply of vital oil, in order to burn with a clear strong light.

In his contemplation, the 16th Karmapa felt that Sikkim would be the best place to set about creating the conditions for the fulfillment of his mission. Sikkim was considered especially suitable on account of the natural Buddhist inclinations of the people and particularly as the country had been sanctified by a visit of Guru Padmasambhava in the distant past. Therefore he readily accepted the kind invitation to establish himself in that country.

Accompanied by Her Royal Highness Tsultrim Palmo of Bhutan, the 16th Karmapa led the party to Gangtok. Sir Tashi Namgyal, the Maharaja, offered him the choice of several sites in his kingdom for the location of the new monastery. Karmapa selected the site at Rumtek, where a Karma Kagyu monastery had been built during the time of his ninth incarnation, Wangchuk Dorje. This place possessed all the auspicious attributes needed for the site of a seat of the Karmapa: seven streams flowing towards it, seven hills facing it, a mountain behind, snow ranges in front, and a river below, spiralling downhill like the form of a conch shell.

The 16th Karmapa and his party immediately arranged to proceed directly to Rumtek. At that time Rumtek consisted of a monastery that was mostly in ruins, and about half a dozen huts surrounded by jungle. There was neither adequate accommodation nor facilities for preparing food.

Building Rumtek

Karmapa travelled to New Delhi, where he met Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister. Pandit Nehru fully understood the difficulties faced by the 16th Karmapa’s followers and promised that the Indian Government would provide financial assistance for the construction of the new monastic center. He made assurances that there would be a free supply of food and clothing for the people there.

The Maharaja of Sikkim graciously gifted seventy-four acres of land at Rumtek to Karmapa in perpetuity. The Sikkim Government generously donated funds towards the preliminary construction costs and provided free timber. A road was constructed, electric cables brought in, and water provided.

The Government of India provided a large grant for the immediate construction of an assembly hall and for residential quarters for the monks. Despite the generosity of so many people, these funds were insufficient for the purpose, so the 16th Karmapa added a significant amount from his own resources. Work on clearing the site began in 1962.

The foundation stone of the new monastic center was laid by the new ruler of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal. It took four years to complete the construction of the new center, which was designed in the most beautiful traditional Tibetan style. It was named Pal Karmapa Densa Shed Drub Cho Khor Ling, meaning “The Seat of His Holiness The Gyalwa Karmapa: A Center for the Teaching and Practice of the Dharma.”

Rare treasured religious relics, icons and books that had been brought from Tibet were installed in the new monastery. On the first day of the first month of the fire horse year (1966), the 16th Karmapa ceremonially entered the new Center. It was a magnificent and highly auspicious occasion.

Travel to Bhutan and India

In 1967, the 16th Karmapa, accompanied by a party of ninety-five followers, visited Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, at the request of His Majesty the King.
During the course of his stay in Bhutan he visited Tak Tsang, the Tiger’s Nest cave-monastery, famous for having been visited by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava).

He also travelled to the Kyichu temple in Paro, there performing special rites for peace and tranquility in the world and for the preservation and propagation of the Dharma everywhere. His Royal Highness the King and Her Royal Highness the Queen Mother most generously presented the Tashi Cho Ling palace at Bumthang, together with its entire landed property, to the 16th Karmapa.

In 1971, the 16th Karmapa conducted readings of the Buddhist scriptures and gave initiations to a large gathering of Buddhists from many different countries at the new Rumtek Center. In the same year one thousand ten-inch-high gilded statues of Lord Buddha were made, filled with herbs and dharanis and blessed.

In addition, eighty-four statues of the Indian Siddhas, six statues of Tibetan Siddhas, and many other statues of teachers from all the Buddhist schools were similarly prepared. In 1972, the 16th Karmapa undertook another extensive pilgrimage throughout India, accompanied by the fourteenth Shamar Rinpoche, the fifth Ponlop Tulku and other lamas and monks from the new Rumtek monastery. The party visited Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Sanchi, Ajanta, Ellora and Nagarjuna Sagar and then returned to Sikkim. An unending stream of people journeyed to see the 16th Karmapa and many received his blessings.

The first visit of a Karmapa to the West

In 1974, the 16th Karmapa led a party of Kagyu lamas to the West, visiting Europe, America and Canada. For the first time, people in the West had the chance to see the Black Crown ceremony, which was performed on a number of occasions.

In this way, the 16th Karmapa was able to establish direct contact with his overseas centers and to spread his teachings more widely. To all those seeking the Way of Dharma, he acted, as in his previous incarnations, as a guide, teacher, and true example.

First His Holiness visited England and Scotland. Then he proceeded to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Holland, and France. In mid-January, the 16th Karmapa flew to Rome for two days where he met with Pope Paul the Sixth. Thereafter, the 16th Karmapa travelled through France and Switzerland and finally left Europe for India from Geneva, leaving Jigme Rinpoche as his representative in Europe. Lama Jigme Rinpoche continued to fulfil this function, and is now General Secretary to Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa.

16th Karmapa travels to America and tours Europe

In 1976, the 16th Karmapa arrived in New York for his first visit to the USA. Afterwards, in 1977 he came for his second tour to Europe, visiting, among others, France, Belgium, England, Germany, Holland, Greece, Austria, Norway, and Sweden. In due course, a great number of meditation centers all over Europe came into being started by his students.

In November 1979, the 16th Karmapa laid the foundation stone for the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute (KIBI) in New Delhi, at a site that was originally given to him by Indira Gandhi for a center for advanced Buddhist studies. His vision was to foster wisdom and compassion through the study and translation of the great Buddhist treatises.

Shortly afterwards, the 16th Karmapa showed signs of being ill with cancer and was operated on for the first time. Nevertheless, he accepted another invitation for a teaching tour to the United States, giving many empowerments and transmissions.

Upon his return to India, the 16th Karmapa’s concern was the reconstruction of temples and meditation centers. He had thousands of Dharma texts printed and distributed, among which were 500 copies of the Derge edition of the Kanjur – a very high quality collection of the words of the Buddha in more than a hundred volumes. Even during the last months of his life he worked tirelessly for the spreading of the Dharma.

The passing of the 16th Karmapa: death and cremation

In 1981 he left India again, this time for medical treatment in a clinic in the USA. The cancer, however, had already spread through his body. Yet even though the pain must have been enormous, he cared for the well-being of the nursing staff, never talking about himself, but always remaining in a happy state of mind. The 16th Karmapa died in the USA in a hospital in Zion near Chicago on 5 November 1981. His death was a last teaching on impermanence for everybody present.

The hospital allowed the body of the Karmapa to remain in the room where he had died, because it was obvious that this was not an ordinary death. Even though he had died, for three days he remained in the Tugdam, a state of meditation. This was clear from signs such as the area around the heart remaining warm and the body remaining supple. The signs were witnessed by the medical staff present.

After that time, the physical remains of the 16th Karmapa were transported to India and taken to Rumtek in Sikkim, where they arrived by helicopter on 9 November. The 16th Karmapa’s body was put into a concentric structure – a mandala – in the upstairs shrine room of Rumtek monastery. Ceremonies were held for one and a half months, after which time the cremation took place. Instead of falling apart during those forty-nine days, the body had shrunk and was now sitting in a two-foot high box, which had a window so one could see inside. A thin veil covered his face, which was of a deep grey hue and somewhat shrunken; all in all it was the size of a small child. After the “Vajra Songs of the Kagyu Masters” and certain other prayers were recited, the box was carried outside and inserted into a recently built clay stupa on the monastery’s roof terrace. Then a monk who had never had any contact with this Karmapa was called upon to light the masses of dry sandalwood underneath the stupa.

Suddenly, in the middle of the ceremony, a huge rainbow surrounded the sun, even though the weather was clear and dry. During the cremation, the heart of the 16th Karmapa rolled out from the stupa on the side facing Tibet. Hundreds of Rinpoches and students, from all over the world, took part in this event.

A thousand years of history

The reincarnate line of the Karmapas, and the history of the Karma Kagyu lineage that they preside over, goes back more than 900 years. The Kagyu lineage of enlightened masters that gave rise to it goes back even further.