Stories of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa

Stories about 16th Karmapa


From: Victress Hitchcock

A Memory of the H.H. 16th Karmapa
Posted: 22 November 2021

In the fall of 1974 I travelled across the Southwest with His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa and an entourage of Tibetan monks, on their first visit to America. We were driving on state highways and back roads, littered with road kill. Each time we passed a dead dog or skunk or mangled coyote, the monks would finger their mala beads and whisper prayers. When I asked what the prayers were for, they told me that the waves of prayers being sent from the passing van were guaranteeing a better rebirth for these beings. They went on to say that it was great good fortune for the animals and for all of us travelers that we were passing at that very moment so they could dispense this never-ending stream of blessings as we made our way across New Mexico.

We stopped for lunch and the monks all ordered fried chicken. It took forever, this out of the way diner not equipped for a large party of Asian men in red robes. The Karmapa had finished his chili and pie and was ready to hit the road before any of the others had been served. There was a lot of scurrying around and the orders of fried chicken with sides of mashed potatoes and coleslaw and biscuit were boxed up and the monks boarded the van, each clutching their Styrofoam box. We took off, following the Karmapa’s gold Lincoln Continental. Mile after endless desert mile, the monks sat with their boxed lunches in their laps, counting their mala beads and chanting quietly. Their food was stone cold by the time I asked the translator if there was a problem. After conferring with them in whispered Tibetan, he told me that they were chanting to purify their karma and the karma of the chickens that, because of the slowness of the service, they assumed had been killed just for them.

After an hour of prayers, the monks opened their boxes and began to eat, nodding their heads and beaming at us as the van kept rolling along toward Arizona and our next stop, the Hopi reservation.

From Gerry Hasse

Posted 3 January 2011

1. LAPD: Then Director David Nichtern arranged for a detail of two Los Angeles policemen to accompany HHK in public. Turns out they were SWAT team and straight out of central casting. Two stories stand out. First, when visiting Sausalito we were all walking in a fairly tough neighborhood. We were crossing some train tracks and HH took one of the cops’ hands and was walking hand in hand when we came upon a band of Hell’s Angels. The policeman became very self-conscious—holding hands with a man in robes—and removed his hand. The bikers looked ominous, but little did they know what the plain clothed escorts “packed.” At the end of the LA portion of the visit, they came up to Don Winchell and myself and asked how to make prostrations. They just about split the seams of their pants, but they prostrated to the Karmapa! Such was the effect he had on the most unlikely of people.

2. HOLLYWOOD HILLS: HHK’s secretary arranged for HH and Jamgon Kongtrul to pay a call on a “method actor guru” in his house high up in the hills. The deal was that he would call out a question such as “Are you bored?” or “Are you angry?” to which one of his students who were seated at his feet would answer “I’m bored” or “I’m angry” in a wide range of emotions. This continued for some time, with HHK and JKR seated in chairs observing. Finally JKR was asked to prompt a “student” in the technique he had been witnessing. Jamgon Rinpoche chose the phrase “Are you rainbow body?” and directly asked that question repeatedly. The hapless student became nonplused, answering repeatedly “I am rainbow body.” After a while, JKR would look at his watch while asking the question over and over. Finally HHK interrupted and instructed everyone to repeat after him: OM MANI PADME HUM after which it became apparent that the acting director had lost compete control.

3. LEAVING SAN FRANCISCO; At the conclusion of the West Coast visit, it was Werner Erhard and EST’s turn to take over hosting His Holiness from Vajradhatu. We said our tearful goodbyes and the next day headed to the SF airport to return to Boulder. Seems that EST neglected to tell HHK that Trungpa Rinpoche was departing that very day. When he found that out they were driving on the freeway, and His Holiness demanded that they turn the car around and head directly to the airport. The TWA flight was temporarily delayed because our bags, in separate cars, were late in arriving. Just as the gate personnel were barring the jetway (we still did not have our luggage but wanted to make our flight) suddenly there was a commotion behind us. We turned around to see HHK standing in an electric cart like Ben Hur. He and JKR strode right past us, past the security guard and boarded the airplane. The befuddled guard then blocked the passage again. A few minutes passed and we saw HH and Jamgon Rinpoche re-appear and we again parted like the Red Sea. Having said their goodbyes they departed. And our bags showed up and we were able to board after all.

Erika Belair

3 January 2011

His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa was staying at the Oberoi Hotel in Calcutta for a few days upon his return from his first visit to the USA, I heard about it in Bodhgaya and was encouraged to go and see him as I had only recently taken refuge, Upon arrival in Calcutta I phoned Achi ,the translator ,to ask if it was possible to come for a blessing of His Holiness,He asked me to be there at seven o’clock in the morning of the next day,Not yet quite awake at such an early hour I managed to arrive at the appointed time , His Holiness was royally seated in a beautifully decorated reception room and was talking to two huge Bhutanese sponsors seated at his feet, He radiated a soft golden light and such compassionate warmth that I felt right at home and settled somewhere in the back, As I was gazing at him mesmerized by even the sound of his voice I understood that he was talking about his experiences in the USA,He described that everything in that land was so huge and that the earth was rich and the fields really big and well organised in big parcels and tended by amazing machinery, Suddenly I noticed that he was speaking Tibetan and that I did not understand that language,As I perked up in surprise he looked at me directly and waved to ask me to come close,

I sat myself at his feet and looked up still totally surprised, Then he made this huge gesture with his hand ,,almost frightening,,,so I ducked a little bit, But he only put his hand very gently to my ear and said,,,this time in perfect English ,,,’Wake up’, May be he had a little gadget in his hand like an alarm clock, I just looked at him as he was smiling somewhat mischievously and I had to laugh, He also started to laugh and we spend a few blissful moments just laughing, As there was nothing really to be added to this I got up ,bowed and left,

Emily Danies

14 February 2011

In 1974 the Karmapa was staying at the Plaza Hotel. A small group of students (I recall perhaps 5 of us) had an interview with him. I was a new student and very happy to have been included in the group. The Karmapa spoke a few minutes, through his translator, and then asked if we had any questions. A very serious young man asked him how much time he should devote to studying dharma texts every day. The response has stayed with me for all these years… The Karmapa looked at him and then at each one of us individually and replied slowly: “Studying is fine, but if you don’t practice, it is all worthless.” Then he laughed.

Mark Szpakowski

19 July 2010

I had the good fortune to be living at Karme-Choling in the late seventies when Karmapa XVI stayed there for a week or so. We could go into the shrine room and sit there while he and his monks practiced. His combination of formality — he was not the least bit sloppy or inattentive — and complete relaxation was a transmission in itself. I think in a very fundamental way I learned how to practice there – as they say, “liberation through seeing”, or through being-with. Spending time in that shrine room, repeatedly, was a tangible experience of how to pay attention to form, how complete openness allows the sharpest precision, how effortlessness and on the dot energy manifest in one gently aware being, and can do so in one’s own being.

Steve Roth

As told to Don Morreale in a personal interview
17 July 2010

There’s a famous prediction attributed to Padmasambhava, 8th Century Tibetan saint:

When the iron bird flies,
And horses run on wheels,
The Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world
And the Dharma will come to the land of the Red Man

His Holiness with his driver, Steve Roth, 1974

I was fortunate enough to be present at the fulfillment of this prophecy. In October, 1974, His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa came to Colorado at the invitation of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I was asked to be his personal chauffeur. His Holiness expressed a desire to meet with the Hopi Indians in Arizona. We set about making the necessary arrangements even renting a brand new, gold colored Cadillac as the official vehicle for the journey. We finally left for Arizona trailed by a caravan of cars containing His Holiness’s retinue of attendant monks and lamas, a Tibetan translator named Achi, and around twenty-five American Buddhist practitioners from Karma Dzong in Boulder. Transfixed by the presence of his Holiness, I did my best to drive mindfully.

Early in the afternoon of the following day, we arrived at a place called Second Mesa, a hlgh plateau on the Hopi reservation. It looked like an old chocolate cake. I nosed the Cadillac onto the dirt road that spiraled up around it, and we slowly made our way to the top. Even though it was October, the temperature was well over one-hundred degrees. The place looked dusty, desolate, and poor. A man who looked to be about eighty years old, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, approached and greeted His Holiness. His name, he said, was Chief Ned. There was a sweet, loving, and gentle air about him. Through Achi the translator, His Holiness asked: “How goes it? How are things with your people?”

‘Not too good,” replied Chief Ned, “We haven’t had rain in seventy-three days.”

His Holiness listened with an expression of deep compassion on his face. “I will do something for you,” he said.

Then Chief Ned invited us to go down with him into a kiva [ceremonial room] to see some sacred relics. There was a small hole at the top of it with a rickety ladder poking out. When he motioned for us to go down it, His Holiness politely declined. He was a rather large and portly man, and there was no way he could possibly fit through that hole. He asked that the rest of us go down while he remained up above. Down in the cool darkness, Chief Ned showed us an eagle feather and other sacred relics.

When we climbed back up into the sunlight, His Holiness abruptly ended the visit. “Let’s go,” he said, and that was that. We got into the cars and headed back down the dusty road and out across the desert to the Hopi Cultural Center and Motel where we were scheduled to spend the night. As we drove, His Holiness, sitting right across from me in the passenger seat, began chanting a puja and making sacred mudra gestures with his hands.

The desert baked and shimmered in the intense heat. I looked out at the sky and noticed a tiny, sheeplike, fleecy little ball of a cloud, all by itself way out there on the horizon. I didn’t give it much thought. I kept on driving, and the Karmapa kept on chanting, and ten or fifteen minutes went by like that before I glanced up again. Much to my surprise, little puffballs of cloud now polka-dotted the sky from horizon to horizon.

The next time I looked, the clouds had congealed into a solid gray mass. This was getting interesting. By the time we reached the Hopi Cultural Center and Motel, the sky had darkened to an ominous and foreboding black not just black, but a classic Cecil-B-DeMille-Moses-and-the-Ten-Commandments black!

We rolled into the motel parking lot. One of the attendants opened the door for His Holiness. He got out and walked to his motel room where another attendant stood ready to open the door. I watched his back as he disappeared into the room. At the very instant that the door clicked shut behind him, there was an eruption of thunder and lightning like I’ve never seen before in my life. Crash! Boom! The most dramatic display you could imagine! And then the rain started coming down hard. Buckets of it. Sheets and torrents of it. It went on and on like that, splashing down on the roof of the Cadillac with the power and intensity of a waterfall.

By that evening, word had gotten out to all the surrounding villages that this “Indian King” had made rain. Pretty soon a crowd had gathered around the motel. In every face there was a look of awe and wonder towards his Holiness, who at the moment was conducting an Avalokiteshvara (compassion) empowerment for the assembled crowd. We Western practitioners felt very much like outsiders at this event. The amazing facial resemblance between the Tibetans and the Hopi suggested an ancient bond between the two peoples. To me, it felt like a reunion.

Michael Chender

14 July 2010

On His Holiness’s first visit to North America in 1974, which started in New York, we held a reception for him at the landmark Plaza Hotel. Because he was travelling on a Bhutanese diplomatic passport, and through whatever magic Trungpa Rinpoche conjured, His Holiness’s motorcade had a police escort. The two policemen who accompanied him came in and stood impassively at the back of the room as a blessing line passed in front of His Holiness on his throne. To my eye they looked like tough New York Irish cops directly out of Central Casting, and I could only imagine what they were thinking to have pulled this detail. As the line drew to a close, I noticed one glance at the other questioningly; then they both slowly removed their hats and went up to receive His Holiness’s blessing. In that shocking moment I saw an irresistible force in a very big world.