The Karmapa in Person
I don’t know how to begin telling you about His Holiness the Karmapa. First, many of you may be uncomfortable calling anyone “His Holiness,” and I can sympathize. You would have to meet him in person to understand. I was lucky enough to meet in in 1997 when I took most of my family to Tibet to meet His Holiness the 17th Karmapa at Tsurphu Monastery, his ancestral home, located at some 15,000 feet in the mountains. I wrote about that in my book of that trip, which is a free read called “Our Pilgrimage to Tibet” at:
I last left off with my story when after my daughter’s wedding on July 16th four of us jumped into a car and drove all night from Michigan to the mountains above Woodstock, New York in order to meet (you guessed it!) His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. It was Margaret, my daughter Anne, myself, and my dear friend Ngodup Burkhar, who is one of the Karmapa’s translators.
We switched drivers, but there was no room for anyone to lie down, so it was catch as catch can when it came to even a few minutes of sleep. Thanks go to Ngodup who made the drive much easier by telling stories of His Holiness and generally making us laugh with his cut-ups. It was a thirteen-hour trip and we crawled into beds very tired. We were staying at a lovely house of a woman who was kind enough to make her house available to dharma travelers like us.
We got less than four hours sleep because we had to get up and go up the mountain to register and be ready to see his holiness that morning. I was one of the official photographers and Margaret was my assistant, carrying the extra lenses and what not. Sleepy or not, we were still high from my daughter May’s wedding and the anticipation of actually seeing His Holiness in person.
For those of you just tuning in to the dharma world, just think of the Dalai Lama, but imagine that he is 26-years old. The Dalai Lama is the head of Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, while the Karmapa is the head of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Both are equals, but the younger Karmapa is very respectful of the Dalai Lama and traveled from India to be in his presence for the Kalachakra Empowerment that the Dalai Lama recently performed in Washington, DC.
In the history of Tibetan Buddhism the line of the Karmapas is older than the line of the Dalai Lamas. This is the 14th Dalai Lama, but the 17th Karmapa. I will spare you the history, but just know that both the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa are considered the living embodiment of loving kindness and compassion and deeply treasured by Tibetans. Both had to escape Tibet and reside in India. They are good friends.
It was hard for me to believe I was about to see the young Karmapa again. We visited with him for three days back in the summer of 1997 and he was glad to see my kids, one of which was his own age. Not many western children made it to the high mountains of Tibet in those years. We had a great time. As for his presence, well I don’t want to sound too much like a groupie, so let me just say that I have never met a more profound presence in my life, and I don’t mean austere and imposing.
When I first was going to meet the Karmapa back in 1997 I was prepared to see an austere figure, one that would command my respect and probably be very powerful to behold. This is what I had come to expect from great spiritual leaders. The actuality was anything but that.
When I finally met His Holiness the Karmapa high in the mountains of Tibet in 1997 I got a surprise. Instead of learning about the nature of the Karmapa or encountering a commanding spiritual presence, I found myself spontaneously learning about my own deepest nature, like who I really was inside all of my words and personality. In the Karmapa’s presence I discovered for a fact that at heart I was a compassionate and loving being. It was beyond any knowledge I had of myself and left an imprint that is my reference point even today, many years later. Instead of a power person, I encountered a loving and kind person, the Karmapa. He brought out my own innate kindness.