The Karmapa and Music in the Sky: An Interview with Michele Martin

The following article is from the Spring, 2003 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

[Michele Martin is the author of the just released Music in the Sky: The Life, Art &Teachings of the 17th Karmapa. I

How did you come to write Music in the Sky?

It's hard to say when you start something because there's always causes behind causes. I went to Tsurphu [Karmapa's monastery in Tibet] in July 92, not long after the Karmapa returned there in June. I was working with a film crew, translating, and his parents were there, staying at the monastery. I came to know his mother quite wrell; we spent a lot of time together. One day she turned to look at me very clearly and she said, "When His Holiness comes out of Tibet and goes abroad, please help him." And I said, "I will." It was a very deep commitment although I didn't know what it would be or how-but there was definitely a very strong connection that was made. So that was there as a basic condition of things.

After the Karmapa escaped to India in January 2000, I went to Dharamsala with Thrangu Rinpoche. There was a meeting of the high Kagyu lamas to decide what to do now that he was out of Tibet. And at the end of the meeting there was an evening celebration that was an offering to all the lamas who had come; as part of it they had put to music a song that the Karmapa had written while escaping. It's very beautiful and I thought, "I'd love to translate that." I have had a particular joy in reading poetry from childhood. I've translated poetry from Tibetan—the Kagyu lineage is a lineage of song and poetry. So I found a copy and translated it—and that was a beginning.


The contents of the book are so rich, ranging from the dramatic stories of his escape, to his recent teachings, to the history of the Karmapas. How did you find all this great material?

I interviewed his sister, who took care of him when he was young and remembered the stories about him at a young age. And I talked to the people who had escaped with him. And to some who were involved in his recognition of some young tulkus. That's a special ability of the Karmapas—to recognize tulkus.


He'd grown up in the mountains and here he is all of a sudden with high government officials and he is totally himself. There was no sense that he was overpowered by the situation; he was just matter-of-factly relating to whatever it was that came to him.

At a press conference we held in India I noticed that the press knew very little about the historical background of the Karmapa, so I wrote a brief history of the Karmapas. And I added a more traditional history so that people would see how Tibetans view their own history—they view it in quite a mythopoetic way. And then there were poems of the 16th Karmapa that were prophetic of the future.

The Karmapa knew I was working on the book and that I liked poems. Sometimes, at Gyuto, I'd be walking down the hall and he would suddenly appear and pull a poem out of Iris pocket and hand it to me.

You translate for His Holiness the Karmapa. What's that like?

He's so awe-inspiring it's very difficult to keep your wits about yourself to translate. He has such a powerful presence. In the beginning when he would say something and then turn and look at me, he was so stunning that it was very hard to keep any words in my mind. It took a while getting used to the powerful presence he is.

I never knew what he was going to talk about. Often with lamas there's a text you can prepare and you know ahead of time generally what they'll be speaking about. With the Karmapa he would speak just whatever it was that he wanted to speak about that day. It kept me always on my toes. I was impressed: he seemed to be able to choose a topic that fit the people who were there that day; they say that the best teachings are those that meet the minds of the people who are there. He seems to have a unique ability to do that.

What was your relationship to the previous Karmapa?

I met him while I was traveling with Dudjom Rinpoche in California. I felt an immediately close connection and took refuge with him. I met him 4 or 5 times. Not many, but each occasion was very special and very strong.

How did it happen that you went to Tsurphu in Tibet to see the young 17th Karmapa?

These connections go beyond reason. I just saw a picture of the Karmapa in the tent when he was first discovered. I felt an immediate, intense connection. I had no doubt that it was the Karmapa; it was one of those occasions when tears come to your eyes and you're completely touched. It went beyond any intellectual figuring out.

How old was he when you first met him?

He was seven years old.

And what was he like?

Completely spontaneous, very energetic, very bright, very quick, curious about everything around him, and very independent.

He had self-confidence in relating to people. When he met with the Chinese officials during the enthronement ceremony he related to them perfectly naturally as equals. It was a whole new world for him. He'd grown up in the mountains and here he is all of a sudden with high government officials and he is totally himself. There was no sense that he was overpowered by the situation; he was just matter-of-factly relating to whatever it was that came to him. He picked up on everything amazingly quickly in a completely natural way.


Was it was difficult for you to get access to him initially?

Things were very open at that time. There's a time in Tibetan political history when there was an opening to freedom of religious practice. The time when the Karmapa was discovered happened to coincide with that. That was why the Chinese government recognized him. He was the first tulku that the Chinese government accepted. That side of things was not difficult. Because he was the Karmapa there were formalities, but there wasn't the sense of him being hidden away or protected in any way. We were able to ask questions and hang out a bit.

How did it evolve that you eventually became a translator for him?

In 2001, the labrang, his administration, asked me to come and translate for him at Gyuto. I of course was delighted. I had had plans of going on retreat for some months but I dropped those and went to Gyuto instead.

You've seen the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa interact. What is that like?

It's like an uncle with his favorite nephew. There's a very warm connection between them. You can see that the Dalai Lama is very concerned about the Karmapa's studies and growth and that he gets what he needs. The Dalai Lama has been extremely generous in seeing him whenever it was needed—even if he was on retreat he'd open the doors to him. And he gave him important initiations as well as his monks' vows. They have an extremely close connection.

What was Tsurphu like?

It's a very special place. I went there first in 1988, before the Karmapa came. It's a very spare landscape—a very simple backdrop for practice. And yet it's a very powerful place; a natural clarity seems to happen when you come there. Your mind just clears out. There are caves where the previous Karmapas meditated. The living presence of the masters who have practiced there is palpable. Really, that's one of the reasons we go on pilgrimage: the blessings are still there.

Any good stories about the Karmapa?

There are many in the book. But there's one that isn't included. The Karmapa would go for walks in the mountains around Tsurphu. One time he was walking with a group of monks and he walked by a big boulder that was sitting next to the trail. And he just sort of passed his monk's shawl across the face of the rock and the person behind him saw that the name Karmapa, in letters the same color as the shawl—deep maroon—had been written on the rock. When I was there in 1996 I walked up and looked at it and it's very clear: you can see the name Karmapa very clearly. You look at the rock and there are these letters written, with the lichen. It's quite amazing when you see these things with your own eyes. I'm skeptical—all Westerners are—but seeing something like this is impressive.

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