The Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa

May 2008

In its thirty years of existence, KTC Monastery has hosted many great Lamas, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche (under whose guidance KTC was founded), Chamgon Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, and many others. Just to read their names confers blessing!

On May 19, 2008, we hosted an especially historic visit: the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, stopped here for a glorious morning on his first visit to the West, in the midst of a whirlwind two-week tour of the US. (New York City; Wappingers Falls, NY—that’s us; Woodstock, NY—his official seat in the US.; Boulder, Colorado; and Seattle). We spent weeks preparing to receive him, and by all accounts it was a splendid event. (We just got to see the part in our retreat house.)

Just 22 years old (a year older than my daughter), the Karmapa first attracted worldwide attention when he made a daring escape from Communist-controlled Tibet to India at the end of 1999, at age 14. He’s been in India ever since, and we’ve been awaiting our first chance to meet him.

It was a particularly poignant moment, as it was his previous incarnation, the Sixteenth Karmapa, who, along with Kalu Rinpoche, urged Lama Norlha Rinpoche to come to New York City in 1976 and undertake the monumental task of establishing the first traditional three-year retreat program in North America. Lama Norlha Rinpoche was with him in Chicago shortly before he passed away there in 1981; he had visited KTC in 1980, as preparations for the retreat were gearing up, but was no longer with us when the first, historic retreat actually began in June of 1982.

After a welcoming ceremony in the main house, an informal talk in a tent outdoors to an audience of more than 300 members of KTC and its affiliated centers (including Jeffrey, Anne and Marguerite from KSC-NH), and a walk down the hill to bless the recently completed foundation of the new Maitreya Center and the stupa that overlooks the Hudson River, the two retreat houses were the last stops on his itinerary.

He spent about ten minutes in each retreat house—first the men’s retreat, Naro Ling; then the women’s retreat, Nigu Ling. At Nigu Ling, we played a traditional welcome on the various Tibetan instruments—conch, cymbals, drum, reed horns and long horns— even though we have barely begun learning them (I played the drum, the easiest one). Then we followed him upstairs to our tiny shrine room, where we served him traditional tea and sweet saffron rice, performed a symbolic mandala offering ceremony, and chanted some prayers. He inspected each of us closely from his seat during all this, which only took about five minutes. Then he made a few remarks, partly in English and partly in Tibetan translated for us by another renowned teacher, the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche; and wished us well in our practice. As he was leaving, he shook each of our hands—not a traditional blessing, but a very special one.

We were told that upon taking his seat in the main shrine room at the beginning of the visit, he immediately asked in which direction the retreat houses lay. In his previous incarnation, he had a strong interest in this project, but six cycles of retreat were completed and the seventh begun, and he himself traveled from one lifetime to the next, before he was finally able to see the results. In fact, we are the first Western retreatants he laid eyes on. He promised that he will be back for a longer visit, and we hope it will be soon.

Like his predecessor, the young Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa radiates warmth, charisma, confidence, and wisdom. In his presence, it is impossible to look anywhere but at him. He speaks with humility, and has a playful sense of humor; we heard frequent laughter from the tent during his talk, and were told that, in honor of the unseasonably cold, windy weather that day, he began by welcoming his audience to Tibet.

He is already a very accomplished meditation master and teacher. Some of his early teachings, beginning in his teens, are included in Michele Martin’s biography of him, Music in the Sky, which also includes a harrowing account of his escape from Tibet. I found these teachings quite moving and wonderful, along with a recent teaching on compassion in the summer 2008 issue of Buddhadharma Magazine, which features his photo on the cover.

In addition to forging an auspicious connection with this powerful young spiritual leader, the Karmapa’s visit also served to remind us what a breathtaking thing it is to be in the presence of an authentic realized master. At Kagyu Thubten Chöling, we have the great good fortune to live every day in the presence of a realized master, who has been patiently teaching us, through words and example, for more than thirty years. Sadly, it is easy to take such an experience a little bit for granted when it is so readily available. Seeing the Karmapa reminded us how very lucky we are.

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