After I graduated from college in 1971, I had the good fortune to travel overland from London to India. I had celebrated at Woodstock and marched on Washington, but that first Asian pilgrimage was the real turning point of my life. Over time, I would find and meet many — if not most — of the saints and enlightened masters (Hindu and Buddhist) of that era.
One day in 1973, in the foothills of the Himalayas at a hillside monastery outside Darjeeling, one of my friends surprised me by asking, “Have you seen your picture in the window of the photo studio in town?” I hadn’t. He encouraged me to go see it: “It shows your first meeting with the glorious Sixteenth Karmapa, and his thousand-watt smile.”
The next day, with the snowy Kanchen-junga (Five Sisters) mountain range filling the Northwestern horizon; I took a thrilling 90-minute jeep ride on the narrow, winding, landslide-prone, potholed road linking the Indian plains at Siligiri to the tea plantation-hill station of Darjeeling. The Das Photo Studio in town provided photos of various Buddhist teachers as well as colorful deity and mandala paintings. In the shop’s window was a beautiful, framed color photo of His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa (Buddha) Karmapa, beaming like the sun, his golden-crowned head and smiling face right before mine, face-to-face, tilting toward me in a fatherly way and blessing me with his hand atop my head.
There was just one small but significant problem. My bushy “Jewfro” and sixties beard intruded directly on what Mr. Das ironically called “the perfect smiling Karmapa portrait — except for your big head!” He did kindly give me a copy of the “ruined” photo, which I still keep pressed flat in an old Darjeeling Dharma-notebook. It remains one of my cherished possessions.
That was my first encounter with the legendary and miraculous Sixteenth Karmapa (1924-81), Rangjung Rigpai Dorje — which translates as “the Self-Existent Diamond Thunderbolt of Innate Wisdom-Awareness.” He was the grand lama of the Kagyu lineage and the 16th incarnation in the oldest line of reincarnated spiritual masters — an unbroken line stretching back 900 years. He had escaped from Tibet, along with many monks and followers, just before the complete Chinese conquest of that beleaguered country in 1959. His Holiness Karmapa took up residence in Sikkim, renovated an old monastery at Rumtek, and soon became renowned as one of the most extraordinary spiritual masters of the twentieth century. He established meditation centers, monasteries, nunneries and study institutes all around the world, as well as hospitals, schools and infirmaries.
HH played a crucial role in bringing the ancient tantric Vajrayana (Diamond Way) teachings to the western world and was the spiritual guide to hundreds of thousands of people during his lifetime. He was known for his miraculous powers and psychic abilities as well as his remarkably powerful presence and inspiring example. He was truly an enlightened Buddhist meditation master, a sage, saint, teacher and abbot, all in one. His followers said that he could talk with birds and other animals. He appeared and blessed, taught and empowered, healed and helped us in countless ways: in dreams, in visions, in meditation and in reality. He precipitated enlightenment experiences and other epiphanies and spiritual breakthroughs in the hearts and minds of his disciples, me included.
His Holiness rarely gave detailed text-based teachings, at least to us Westerners, although he and was always a powerful, edifying and empowering influence. He radiated such marvelous awakened energy and sacred presence that he helped to forever transform my life. He seemed to directly pour some elixir-like “piece” of himself into each of us, without allowing that sacred spiritual energy to be adulterated by our conceptual minds, personalities or other such obstacles.
Through the realization of his innate Buddha Nature, the Sixteenth Karmapa reflected our own innate Buddha-ness. So many people, including the most erudite Tibetan scholars, were astonished by his direct, intimate, irresistible and inexpressible mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart spiritual resuscitation — so rare in this world today, so subtle, esoteric and even legendary, if not mythical. I believe that is precisely why almost everyone he knew or ever met seemed to instinctively look up to and be awestruck by him, regardless of their tradition, beliefs or background. Most people, including important lamas, felt that he could see right through them. Some even felt intimidated.
His Holiness was a world teacher of timeless universal truth in the modern world. Many of his well-developed disciples helped bring Buddhism, meditation, Tibetan yoga and mindfulness to the Western world during the Sixties and subsequent decades, such as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the pioneering lama and founder of Naropa University. In 1981, during one of his several world teaching tours, the Karmapa passed away at a hospital in Illinois, which only affirmed his heart-full embrace of all beings, East and West, as his family. The attending physician cried when he saw the marvelous signs and omens around the Karmapa’s body for the three days following his last breath. His Holiness continues his universal mission of compassion and enlightenment as the youthful Seventeenth Karmapa as well as via his many students and other emanations.
I can never forget my Lama. He is always with me, in me, of me, closer than my own breath, blood, heartbeat. We are all Karmapa (Buddha) at heart. It’s so close that we overlook it; seems too good to be true, so we can’t believe it. Our only mission? His mission: To recognize and awaken to this fact, to our true Buddha-nature, for the benefit of one and all — for a better world and future to be possible, right now, right here.
Experiencing the awakening presence of a sacred master is difficult to comprehend and harder to explain. I feel I “meet” him in my morning meditation practice, through the chants and prayers he taught. The true guru never dies: He or she is a principle, an archetype — not limited by mortality. I carry him in my heart; he carries me and us all in his. Thus, he never died.
One night in 1981, not long after he departed from this dewdrop-like world, the Sixteenth Karmapa appeared to me in a luminous, clear light dream when I was in the middle of a three-year, three-month, three-day retreat. He softly proclaimed, “I am always with you. Each of you will be with me through all my lifetimes. I belong to you, and you belong to me. We shall never be parted.” (from The Miraculous 16th Karmapa: Incredible Encounters with the Black Crown Buddha, compiled and edited by Norma Levine with contributions by Lama Surya Das)