The Karmapa

HH the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa
Urgyen Trinley Dorje, Part 1

The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa died in 1981. His reincarnation, the 17th Karmapa, born in 1985, was found in 1992 , in exact accordance with the prediction letter he had written not long before his death, and subsequently formally enthroned. The following is some of the story of his discovery and life so far, from Ken Holmes' book "Karmapa", published by Altea, Scotland 1996.

HH the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje

Family background

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 daughters. Longing for another son, they sought help from Karma Norzang, the renowned yogi of Kampagar, reputed to be like a second Milarepa. 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.

Auspicious signs

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.

A special wait

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. Tibetans count a person's age as "first year"—1—at birth and then adding one as each Tibetan New Year passes. This can make as much as a year's difference with the Western way of counting.

The young Apo Gaga spent about four years receiving a special education at Kalek, where he was given the attention due to an unrecognised reincarnate lama. He had a small throne to one side of the shrine hall, an attendant to help him and he was not allowed to get up to the same pranks and games as the other young novices, who showed him a great deal of respect. During this phase, he spent moments back with his family in their nomadic round. In those periods, his parents report that he would often build toy monasteries from earth and stone, or else make a small throne and sit on it to recite prayers. They say he would ride off into the hills on the backs of goats or wild animals, that he would cry whenever animals were being hurt or killed and that he always showed compassion. He showed a particular interest for trees, frequently planting them and being upset if he saw trees or plant life being destroyed. It is said that springs often emerged where he had planted small clumps of trees.


In 1992 he insisted,without explaining why, that his parents move to their summer pasture one month earlier than they had intended. In the Tibetan calendar, summer is a 72 day period commencing three lunar months after Tibetan New Year. Thus, summer usually starts some time in May. Trusting Apo Gaga's advice, they moved camp early and it was this that put them in the location predicted in the Sixteenth Karmapa's prophecy letter, in time to be found by the search party. Apo Gaga prepared himself to leave, packing some things shortly before the advance search party arrived. He awoke early on the morning of the day they came and placed some of his clothes on the back of his goat, a special one without horns, and told his mother that his monks were coming and that he was now ready to leave for his monastery; it would be good if he could take one or two gifts with him from the Kalek monastery! His elder brother, Yeshe Rabsal, was at Kalek when the advance party arrived and called his brother down from the hills to say that monks from Tsurphu were at Katok, on their way to Barkor, probably looking for the reincarnation of a special lama. News of this brought great joy to the young Karmapa, who laughed and danced.

His parents set up a special tent to receive the visitors. After the traditional politenesses of greeting and exchange of white scarves (katta), the advance party enquired after the births of Loga's children and about any dreams she or others in the family may have had. The parents told of the their son's birth, the special signs, the dream of the cranes, the brother and father's dreams, the cuckoo, the sound of the conch shell, the three suns and so forth. In fact, the advance party had already heard most of this through the discreet enquiries that they had made among the other nomads of the camp. Lama Domo, representing Tsurphu in the advance party, then gave the father a copy of the Sixteenth Karmapa's prediction and Dondrup realised who exactly his son was. After passing a moment together, in the elation of joy of the search party and astoundment of Dondrup's family, the monastic party then accompanied the young Karmapa to Kalek monastery to await the coming of Akong Tulku Rinpoche and Sherab Tarchin, who were expected within days. They soon arrived. Word of the precious discovery was sent back to the Tai Situpa and the Goshir Gyaltsabpa in India, who in turn informed HH the Dalai Lama. When their joyous confirmation of the new Karmapa's identity was received at Kalek monastery, Akong Rinpoche and Sherab Tarchin presented Apo Gaga, now become His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, with the special robes and sacred blessings of the tru.sol, that they were carrying on behalf of the Tai Situpa and the Goshir Gyaltsabpa and which had been especially prepared in India at the outset of their journey.

As is usual with the discovery of a tulku, offerings were made to the Karmapa's parents to express gratitude for the care that they had given him up to the time of discovery. The initial finding of the Karmapa now completed, a short period was spent in the Kalek area during which Akong Rinpoche made acquaintance with the Karmapa and his family as the full import of what was happening settled in. Preparations were made for the journey to Tsurphu. Akong Rinpoche and Sherab Tarchin, representing the Tai Situpa and the Goshir Gyaltsabpa, and a new group of representatives just arrived from Tsurphu, eventually accompanied the Karmapa on his historic journey back to Tsurphu; the seat his former emanation had left some thirty-three years previously. Before the party left Kalek monastery, three suns appeared in the hazy sky and were seen by many hundreds of people in the surrounding area. The middle one was larger and had a rainbow halo, while the other two were smaller and nestling in the clouds. There could well be a meteorological explanation for such a thing, but even so, it would still be what the Tibetans would call "an auspicious coincidence".

Homecoming to Tsurphu

His arrival at Tsurphu was a moving moment for the thousands of Tibetans who had quickly gathered there as news of his coming spread. Descending from his vehicle the Karmapa made the last part of the journey mounted upon a beautifully-apparelled white steed, wearing a special coiffe and accompanied by monks carrying silk banners and playing the traditional musical instruments. Tibetans are famous for their equestrian skills. Many were there on horseback as an escort, dignified in their upright bearing on their small but powerful mounts. The Karmapa entered Tsurphu itself beneath a gigantic golden parasol, sign of his high rank, to be greeted by a mighty crowd. Descending from his horse with great power of presence for one so young, he was seated in front of the main temple. Dancers in two-man snow-lion costumes performed antics and presented him with "snow-lion's milk" to drink, masked representations of the Kagyu protectors came to great him one by one as did the figure of an ancient sage, in symbolic wish for his life to be long and healthy.

In general, the days following his arrival were a great celebration for the makeshift city of people that had spontaneously formed there. There were lay folk dances, instrumental music and singing. Every day, the Karmapa gave his blessing to the vast crowds.

On June 27th, the government of the Peoples Republic of China officially approved Urgyen Trinley Dorje as the seventeenth reincarnation of the Karmapa. He who had been, 800 years before, the first reincarnate lama of Tibet became the first tulku permitted by the Chinese government since 1959. This was undoubtedly aided by the fact that many previous Karmapas were gurus of the Emperors of China.


The Tai Situpa and the Goshir Gyaltsabpa sought visas for entry into Tibet to officially enthrone His Holiness and permission was also obtained for a hair-cutting and naming ceremony to be held in Lhasa's famous Jo-kang temple, the home of the statue of Buddha Sakyamuni brought to Tibet from China by Princess Wen Ch'eng in the seventh century. This statue is said to have come to China from India, where, some say, it had been made during the Buddha's lifetime by the artist Visvakarman and blessed by Lord Buddha himself. It depicts the Enlightened One at the age of twelve and is believed to bring great blessing to those who see it.

Also during this period, representatives of Kagyu Buddhism from many nations prepared themselves for a journey to Tibet to attend the enthronement of the teacher for whom they and their numerous organisations worldwide had been waiting so long. After years of uncertainty and anxiety and a distinct feeling of being in limbo, the joy of the Karmapa's discovery was as tremendous as one might imagine it to be upon hearing good news that one has awaited for a decade. Now, it was also crystal clear that the prediction of the great Nyingmapa visionary, Chojur Lingpa, was being fulfilled and that the Tai Situpa would be the main guru of the new Karmapa. Almost a century before, Chojur Lingpa had had a vision in which he had seen all the Karmapas up to the twenty-first incarnation. This is how he described the vision concerning the Seventeenth Karmapa:
In the area (of the vision) in front of the mountains, (there are) rocks and pine trees, and there is the seventeenth of the incarnation rosary, together with Khentin Tai Situ, their minds fused as one. This (signifies) that the leaves and petals of the Buddha's teachings will flourish (under him) and there will be abundant fruit of the very essence of the transmissions of Gampopa.

The Tai Situpa, to whom the previous Karmapa had entrusted the prediction letter, would be as one with the mind of the young Karmapa. This was also what the prediction letter itself had foreseen:
He is sustained by Lord Dönyö Drup.
Pema Dönyö is the name the Sixteenth Karmapa had himself given to the Tai Situpa, some thirty years previous. He gave that particular name according to Guru Rinpoche's prophecies, made in a text called the Gongdu, giving names for the Tai Situpas. This is the tenth of those names. In an address he gave, on Indian radio, to Kagyu followers, HH the Dalai Lama also made it clear that the Tai Situpa and the Goshir Gyatsabpa were the main lamas responsible for finding and establishing the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa.
contd. ...

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