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HH the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa,
Rangjung Rikpé Dorjé

The following is a personal appreciation of HH the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, by Ken Holmes, from his book "Karmapa", published by Altea

Miracles and Nirvana

birth, recognition and early education  transmission, retreat, pilgrimage, meeting with Mao  leaving Tibet, settling in Sikkim, founding Rumtek  establishing the Kagyu lineage in exile, new Rumtek  travelling and enlightened activity  miracles and nirvana


A great guru is the mirror not only reflecting his individual disciples' needs but the general status of things in the world. When their bodies take sick, it can be viewed as being their purification of the sufferings in the world and in their disciples. They also set the example of how to relate to sickness. However, there is no one interpretation of such things, as they are the emanation of cosmic purity within our lives, showing anything that can help us to learn. However, this type of "interpretation" could all be seen as just wishful-thinking, were it not for the miraculous power over the body shown by the Karmapas.

The Sixteenth Karmapa left footprints in rocks on many occasions and in many countries. One day poisonous snakes swarmed from a rock and covered him whilst he was bathing in the Tarzi hot springs, yet he danced joyfully, unharmed. He once tied a heavy sword blade into knots. In his presence, normally antagonistic animals got on well with each other. When photographed with a single plate camera at Rumtek, during an empowerment, he appeared almost transparent. Thorough checking of the negative and a giant print made from it showed that double exposure or any other normal explanation was impossible. At other times the Karmapa had made rain for the Hopi Indians and had stopped droughts, once by bathing on a chosen spot, whence a spring burst forth. His Holiness also left a footprint in the waters of a Tibetan lake, which can still be seen, as a constant footprint depression in the water, summer and winter. The stories of the physical wonders of the Sixteenth Karmapa, witnessed by Buddhists, are many but perhaps the most striking events were those which took place around his death, for these were witnessed by amazed non-Buddhist physicians in an Illinois hospital.

Passing Beyond

During the 1970s, the Karmapa started to show signs of cancer. At one point, this became life-threatening and he was operated upon. After a remission, there was a gradual recurrence, complicated by the fact that his symptoms came and went, totally disappeared or manifested as something completely different in a way which confounded regular analysis. He was undoubtedly unwell yet is was as though his body were joking with the machines. His illness was to end in death at the American International Clinic in Zion, near Chicago, Illinois.

Many inexplicable things happened during that Chicago time. A medical record of them was kept by the Indian army physician, Dr Kotwal, who had accompanied His Holiness medically for many years. When the immortal enlightened mind of the Sixteenth Karmapa left its physical shell, his body remained in gentle meditation for three days, during which time the heart centre remained very warm and the skin supple. This was attested to by the doctors despite all the other clinical symptoms of death. Amazed, some of the medical staff visited the holy place of his room, to witness the impossible. Only after three such days did the usual manifestations of death appear. His Holiness body was flown back to India and cremated in grand ceremony at Rumtek. During the cremation ceremony, each of the four main rinpoches made a mandala offering. When it was the Tai Situpa's turn, he approached the northern gate of the cremation urn to offer the tsampaka flour mandala and saw something fall from the blazing body onto the base of the inner pyre, near the gate. Unsure what to do for the best, the Tai Situpa quickly sent a monk to ask advice from the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, who was most experienced in such things.

Some five minutes later, the monk came back through the crowd with a message from Kalu Rinpoche that it was something very sacred and should be removed and kept as a relic. It was His Holiness' heart, now partially charred. This was enshrined in a golden stupa at Rumtek and has become a Kagyu lineage relic; an object of deep veneration. Some of the bones found among the ashes had self-formed images of the buddhas on them and there were many small crystal-relics, known as rin.sel. Such occurrences—the heart, the self-formed images and rinsel—were also witnessed at the passing of the very first Karmapa, Dusum Chenpa. Some days after the cremation, Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche noticed a baby's footprint in the northern quarter of one of the mandala arranged for the cremation. Perhaps the Sixteenth Karmapa was already leaving signs of the direction of his next emanation.

One duty of a great spiritual teachers is to discourage disciples from taking their presence for granted. Lord Buddha's passing into nirvana was a formidable teaching given to remind his followers of their own responsibility, to themselves and others, to practice and not to be always carried on the wave of another's spirituality. Lord Buddha's parting words were, "All composite things are impermanent; strive with earnestness" . In the passing away and reincarnation of the Karmapa, it is very important for each disciple to learn about impermanence and to pray sincerely and whole-heartedly for the master to reincarnate. Those deep prayers help shake them from the mental lethargy which is a meditator's enemy; the expectation of having everything "handed to one on a plate", the feeling that someone else will do the necessary. It is important for each person to participate in the calling out for that pure mind to grace the world again. Death is, and will always be, a Buddhist's greatest teacher and it was a painful lesson for many people, including westerners, when the Sixteenth Karmapa, and indeed their other beloved teachers, died.


The years of uncertainty, longing, praying, reflection before the reincarnation is found bring much maturity to the mind, helping one to appreciate more fully each moment to be spent with fine gurus in the future. Meeting remarkable teachers is a result from excellent past good karma, and it is vital to keep generating the karma in the present in order to make such meetings happen again and again in the future. In this process, motivation and heartfelt prayer play a central role.

Marpa the Translator brought the Kagyu dharma to Tibet. His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa brought it to the world, turning the wheel of dharma on all its levels and immaculately establishing the right conduct, meditation and wisdom which are the three mainstays of the Buddha's teachings.