In the 10th century AD, at the great Buddhist monastic university Nalanda in Bihar, India, there was a monk named Naropa who was of the school’s best and brightest students. Despite his academic standing, upon hearing of a great yogi named Tilopa, Naropa immediately felt great devotion to him and, wanting to learn on a deeper, more experiential level, resolved to leave the university behind in order to seek him. After a great search and many hardships, Naropa found Tilopa and is said to have attained a very high level of spiritual realization.
Naropa then taught Marpa, a great translator credited for transmitting a vast amount of Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet. Marpa did this not just through translation work, but also by physically transporting texts, on foot, over the course of several challenging journeys through the Himalayas.
One of Marpa’s chief disciples was Milarepa, a yogi who is revered as one of the greatest saints of Tibetan Buddhism. Spiritually powerful from birth but born into tragic circumstances, Milarepa is said to have destroyed an entire village through the use of advanced black magic. Yet, under the tutelage of Marpa, Milarepa was able to work through all of this negative karma and achieve a high level of awakening in the very same lifetime.
Milarepa then taught Gampopa, an accomplished doctor, who in turn taught a man named Dusum Khyenpa, the first Gyalwa Karmapa. The Karmapas are the oldest line of tulkus in Vajrayana Buddhism and are the head of Karma Kagyu school, one of the major schools within the greater Kagyu lineage. The line of Karmapas continues to this day.
I recently had the privilege of watching the film Recalling a Buddha: Memories of the Sixteenth Karmapa, by filmmaker Gregg Eller.
Everyone I heard speak about the Sixteenth Karmapa described him in such commanding terms, in ways I’d never heard someone described. This was consistent between local meditation centers, on breaks at retreats at large land centers, and teachings given by Tibetan lamas. It made me want to find out more about him. Both Westerners and Tibetan lamas commented on his presence, about how their minds would stop, the inspiration of seeing the Black Crown Ceremony, and also a personal power that was different from charisma, which wasn’t a trait I’d associated with high lamas.
Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924-1981) was the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa. Like his spiritual forefathers, he was a profoundly fascinating and powerful person. Yet, unlike his forefathers, he existed in modern times, travelled the world, and was deeply involved in the transmission of the Vajrayana Buddhism to Europe and North America.
The film covers many aspects of the Karmapa’s life. From his escape from the Chinese in 1959, the instruction and guidance he gave his many accomplished disciples, his travels to North America and his relationship with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his sangha, the blessings he bestowed on the vast multitudes that would come to see him, his death, and the legacy he left behind.
One of the things that struck me about the film was that there was not a great deal of direct footage of the Karmapa, which, considering that the film was a documentary about him, lead me to think that perhaps there just isn’t much footage of him in existence at all. Aside from a rare interview from the late 70s local access TV program, The Vermont Report, the vast majority of the footage of him is all of ceremonies. This works to the film’s benefit because instead relying on direct footage, the story of the Karmapa is told through interviews with those that knew him and were close to him.
Interviewed in the film (and I don’t think I’ve missed anyone) are Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche, Jetsun Khandro Rinpcohe, Dr. Mitchell Levy, He Who Stands Firm, Gyaltsap Rinpoche, Ngodup T. Burkhar, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Tenzin Palmo, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Tenzin Parsons, Judy Lief, Gene Smith, Traleg Rinpoche, Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Achi Tsepal, and Shamar Rinpoche. There is more wisdom, love, affection, and insight in these interviews than I could ever describe.
Getting to speak to any one of the participants in Recalling a Buddha would have been the privilege of a lifetime. The sum effect of their descriptions of Karmapa helped me appreciate a certain order of magnitude of human development. I came to understand that presenting those recollections to provide the historical, biographic and dharmic context of the Karmapa and his activity was going to be the real work of a documentary film. Hearing that context from living witnesses was also going to be more moving and engaging than having a narrator try to convey such a context. For a viewer, the effect would be more cumulative and meaningful.
What I am most fascinated by regarding the Karmapa is that among those that knew him, just about everyone recalls witnessing occurrences that are beyond the conventional understanding of reality.
One of the things the 16th Karmapa is widely known for that I have always been intrigued by is his relationship and communications with animals. In the film Gyaltsap Rinpoche recollects:
Karmapa was a prominent and great personality. Normally, when great individuals can go to different places, they might want to go to fancy places‚ big clean tourist attractions. Whenever His Holiness had the opportunity, he always wanted to go where there were animals. Birds mainly but all animals, be it a zoo, be they birds, snakes, buffaloes, whatever kinds of animals. Usually, these are not the cleanest or the most convenient places. But he wanted to go and connect with them. He would offer prayers and blessings, repeating mantras for instance. By connecting with such an enlightened being, it is quite certain that they will experience higher forms of rebirth. I recall that aspect of His Holiness’ life very strongly.
Even in Rumtek, during the rainy season, we would find creatures. Sometimes monks would find snakes. Then His Holiness would tell the monks to bring the snakes and he would keep them. Later, he would set them free. Same with frogs. After blessings, prayers, he would set them free. Karmapa had utter confidence in the basic potential of all beings. The Buddhist tradition says that all beings without exception are endowed with “yeshe nyingpo” or “buddhanature.”
Ngodup T. Burkhar, one of the Karmapa’s translators, tells this story:
I once saw a bird standing on His Holiness’ index finger. His Holiness began giving the bird transmission. I call it transmission because it was not like normal recitation of mantra. Then, he would just gently blow on the bird. People said, “Oh no. This bird is sick and it’s dying.” Then the bird was standing there perfectly still. I thought ‘hmmm, maybe the bird fell asleep?’ It was not moving or tilting in any way. The bird had died meditating, still standing. Great buddhas and bodhisattvas can communicate teachings even to animals, giving them transmission, showing love and affection. When you see it happen before your eyes you think, So that’s what they are talking about in the teachings.
Perhaps what the Karmapa was most known for, like the Karmapas before him, was the Black Crown Ceremony, which he performed many times throughout the world. The Black Crown represents the power to benefit sentient beings, witnessing the ceremony it is a tremendously powerful blessing
. Tenga Rinpoche recalls,
As of we traveled, people has different experiences in the meeting his Holiness. Some recognized their nature of mind simply by observing the Black Crown Ceremony. Some even saw a kind of light on the top of the Black Crown ornament. There were many of these experiences among disciples in North America.
One recollection of the Black Crown Ceremony that particularly interested me was from Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche,
I served in the Vajra Crown ceremony, playing different parts. It was very interesting. All the monks told me different things—that sometimes the Crown is heavy and sometimes it’s light. They’d told me this but I never believed it. I thought it was some kind of mythical story. But then I really experienced it. In America I carried the Vajra Crown in ceremonies and one time it was so heavy that I was worried I was going to lose control and drop it on the stage. I was feeling so ashamed. It was like someone was pushing down on my shoulder. Other times it was so light and I felt like a weight lifter. How come? It was light like lifting a paper box or something. They told me that it was reflecting the audience’s karma. When the audience’s karma is heavy the crown becomes heavy. When the audience’s karma is more positive and light the crown becomes light. I experienced this, a first hand experience. It’s not just a story you hear.
Something else that I found both very interesting and immensely sad was in the section about the Karmapa’s death. Dr. Mitchell Levy, who was present when he died, explains that the Karmapa had widespread cancer that was in a very advanced stage, a state that by all accounts should have been extremely painful. Yet, somehow, he was perfectly peaceful and calm and didn’t appear to be in any pain at all. Dr. Levy states that it was the Doctors’ belief that he SHOULD be in pain, despite His Holiness saying that he wasn’t, that lead them to administer strong painkillers. It was only once he was drugged and became groggy that his vital signs became disrupted, which was the beginning of his death. Levy recalls that it was clear that it was the sheer power of his will that was keeping him awake, alive, and serene. Just this month a study was released which indicates that meditation is a more effective pain-killer than morphine, and this study was conducted only with beginner practitioners, not advanced tantric masters like the Karmapa. Contemplating this, I am left thinking that Buddhist masters like the great Kagyu lineage holders and many others in other Buddhist traditions have long possessed knowledge and abilities of which Western science has only begun to scratch the surface of. But I digress…
In any case, judging from how long I have gone on about this film, it should be pretty clear that I think it is an important work that is very much worth watching. It can be ordered here.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.