NEEDS REPAIR An Interview With Lama Kunsang & Lama Pemo on the Karmapas

The following article is from the Spring, 2012 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

authors of History of the Karmapas

How did you come to write History of the Karmapas?


Lama Pemo: Starting in adolescence Lama Kunsang was very interested in biographies of Buddhist saints. Because he repeatedly recounted the biographies to all of his friends and family members, he ended up knowing all the stories in detail. Already at that time people would tell him: You know so much about the Karmapas. Why don't you write a new book on them?

Lama Kunsang: Then during the thirty years that followed we both continued collecting material about the Karmapas and masters linked to their activity.

transformed the atmosphere of the entire hospital; his exemplary way of using his cancer was the ultimate teaching to students and the medical team alike. We dedicated a long chapter to this Karmapa as numerous readers met him in the seventies and also because he was the first Karmapa to set foot on Western soil and establish dharma centers.

The 17th Karmapa occupies, of course, a very special position in the history of the Karmapas as he is the present head of the Kagyu lineage. Hebecame world-famous due to his spectacular and greatly publicized flight from Tibet in the winter of 1999/2000. In the book we also recount the amazing details of this adventure.

Can you say something about your first encounter with the young 17th Karmapa?

LP: In 1993, while staying in Kalu Rinpoche's monastery, in India not far from the Tibetan border

we heard about the opening of Tibet and went to Kathmandu, where we managed to get a permit for two months. So we traveled to Lhasa at the end of the winter and headed straight to Tsurphu, the Karmapa's monastery (4 hours drive from Lhasa.) We succeeded in sneaking into a local bus, filled to the brim with pilgrims coming from Kham (eastern part of Tibet, the 17th Karmapa's birth region.) It was a delightful and unforgettable journey! We were the only Westerners in the midst of a joyful, lively crowd of Khampas, all dressed in their best attire and adorned with colorful jewelry. They were joking noisily with us all the time and even tried to offer us their modest provisions, but as soon as we came in sight of Tsurphu Monastery, they all of a sudden became extremely serious, joined their hands, tears in their eyes, and started to chant Karmapa Chenno, Karmapa think of me.

It was in 2008 that we actually decided to sit down in order to compile this rich material, with the goal of providing a complete reference work concerning the Karmapas. Encouraged by Marie Aubelea French editor and writer who offered her help we started writing History of the Karmapas.

We also turned to Mila Khy- entse Rinpoche to help us in this challenging task. He considerably contributed to the book due to his immense knowledge in numerous fields. We requested that he draw some calligraphies of the Karmapas and write an introduction to explain some Buddhist notions difficult for the average reader to understand. LP: We decided to enrich the book with lively accounts and numerous anecdotes of the private lives of masters, drawn from various written and oral sources.

As Lama Kunsang is a specialist and lecturer in Asian history and travels to Tibet and Bhutan several times a year, he took advantage of this situation in order to find more details, take photos and interview people. Thus many sections of the book came about rather naturally. For example, he interviewed the aged Karma Shedrup Rinpochewho now lives in Rewalsar, Northern Indiaabout his life as a young tulku in Tsurphu Monastery. This master remembered many private stories about the Karmapas, as he had been in care of the 16th Karmapa and the famous Great Khandro, the 15th Karmapa's spiritual consort.

What is your link with the Karmapas?

LK: We both met the Dharma in the late 1970s when we had barely emerged from adolescence. It was during this period that the 16th Karmapa sent Kalu Rinpoche as his representative to the West. A few years later, at the age of twenty-four, we did the traditional three-year-retreat under Kalu Rinpoche's direction, followed by another year of retreat to deepen our understanding. Throughout the retreats the Karmapa greatly inspired us and was constantly present in our minds. After retreat, we went to India and spent five years in Kalu Rinpoche's monastery in the Himalayan foothill region of Darjeeling. There we were asked to join his translation committee whose task it was to translate into English Jamgon Kongtrul's Treasury of Knowledge, an encyclopedia of Buddhism.

During this time we occasionally went to the Karmapa's seat in Rumtek, Sikkim; on our first visit we met a helpful monk who allowed us to catch a glimpse of the authors of History of the Karmapas unique religious items and termas that belonged to the previous Karmapas; we also spent hours meditating in the shrine room that contains the 16th Karmapa's golden stupa with his relics. The living presence and the blessing of the Karmapa were still palpable there.


They were joking noisily with us all the time and even tried to offer us their modest provisions, but as soon as we came in sight of Tsurphu Monastery, they all of a sud- l den became extremely serious, joined their | hands, tears in their * eyes, and started to I chant Karmapa Chenno, I Karmapa think of me.

Which Karmapa has left the deepest impression on you?

LP: All Karmapas had exceptional qualities. However, one who particularly touched us because of his limitless compassion was the 8th Karmapa, who passed away at age forty after having taking upon himself an epidemic of leprosy.

The 15th Karmapa was also very special in his lineage as he was a terton (treasure revealer) and the only Karmapa to take spiritual consorts.

The 16th Karmapa, who passed away in an American hospital, was also particularly inspiring for us: his joyful approach to death

The monastery, perched at 4,300 meters, was an awesome sight! We headed straight to the special chamber where the Karmapa gave his blessings every day at noon. When we first saw the child, then eight years old, we were mesmerized by his impressive. large eyes gazing at us fix- ingly. We both felt an immediate and strong connection and were moved to tears. There was such an indescribable presence about him! He seemed slightly amused, perfectly at ease, and full of self- confidence when he blessed the pilgrims one after the other with a long stick.

After this first encounter we stayed at the monastery for two weeks, lodged in a small cell in freezing cold winter weather. At that time there was no food available for foreign visitors and no shop around the monastery; so we sustained ourselves with a bag of tsampa (roasted barley) that we had thought to bring with us and some rancid yak butter (Tibetans' special treat!) to add some flavor to our dry barley flour. But we would have endured any hardship to be able to meet the Karmapa every day. Every morning we returned to see him at noon in order to get his blessing.

One day we noticed a group of Khampa pilgrims who followed the Karmapa when he left the room after a blessing. As we suddenly saw them line up to kneel down with their foreheads touching the stone floor, we wondered what was going on there. The Karmapa gave them a very special traditional blessing by putting his boot on their heads. We imitated the Tibetans and also knelt down. On seeing us two westerners in this position, he stopped in front of us and burst out laughing! He seemed to hesitate a little bit, but then he jokingly put his boot on our heads with a much softer gesture, as if he knew that Westerners were not at all familiar with such a blessing!

One month later we returned to Tsurphu monastery with Bokar Rinpoche. We still clearly remember the joyful meeting be- plus, as it adds many clarifications on subjects that were not explained in great detail in the book itself. He elucidates in a completely new way the process of reincarnation, the tulku system, and other points, such as the invisible world of the Karmapas, their specific visions and powers, the different levels of consciousness, the three kayas, the functioning of emanations, etc. Many readers of the French version told us that the book greatly helped them to understand reincarnation more clearly.

Why do great Tulkus such as the Karmapas still need such a strict education?

LP: For most people it is difficult to understand that great bodhisattvas such as the Karmapas still need such a long education and must train in meditation like ordinary practitioners.

As Mila Khyentse Rinpoche says in his introduction, tenth ground bodhisattvas do not suffer any alteration of consciousness on entering the womb and can thus effortlessly remember most of their previous studies. They do not come back propelled by karmic forces; thev decide to come back motivated by their wish to help beings. They onlv take up formal teaching, transmitted from the mouth of the master to the ear of the disciple, as Tibetans say, to set an example for practitioners.

For them, a simple review of the path and its practices is sufficient. However, the longer the delay between rebirth and rediscovery, the greater the risk of loss. That is why elaborate systems of recognition rapidly developed in Tibet.

Why do many Karmapas die so young?

LK: As Mila Khventse Rinpoche explains in his introduction, great Bodhisattvas can take upon themselves negative conditions and lighten in this way the karma accumulated by ordinary beings. The' take upon themselves physical or mental pains and adverse circumstances and give happiness in return.

It is not rare for a Karmapa to voluntarily contract illnesses such as smallpox and die. These acts of great compassion rapidly consume their vital energy, thus shortening their lives. However, in order to counteract this, they usually perform long life practices in retreat. Nonetheless, due to their tireless activity entirely oriented towards the benefit of beings, the Karmapas often die young. It is, however, not the sickness that they take upon themselves that affects them, but the erroneous vision of the unenlightened beings they help. What needs to be purified are not the illnesses and adverse circumstances, which are only the results of an erroneous vision of reality, but rather the very causeignorancethat permitted their emergence in the first place. When Bo- dhisattvas take upon themselves the troubles of beings, they take over their ignorance and purify it by transforming it into wisdom. It is precisely this purification process that consumes the energy of bodhisattvas and can shorten their lives.

What characterizes their passing away?

LP: When great Bodhisattvas die they usually sit in a meditation posture and enter the ultimate meditation, tukdarn, that is considered their ultimate teaching and reveals the level of realization of the master. Although the vital functions no longer play their role, the bodv retains its suppleness and the region of the heart stays warm; the head does not drop and no typical decomposing odor develops. On the contrary, it may happen that the followers smell a subtle perfume emanating from the bodv. After the crema- tion rite of the first Karmapa, for example, his followers discovered his heart and his tongue (representing the awakened mind and speech) intact in the middle of the ritual pyre, as well as fragments of bone on which appeared Buddhist symbols, particularly sacred syllables. Meteorological signs such as rainbows, particular cloud formations, etc. also occur when great Bodhisattvas pass away. ä_æ

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