Biography of His Holiness Sixteenth Karmapa

Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924–1981)

Unerringly seeing the nature of dharmas and dharmata just as it is,

You expand the wisdom of omniscience

And give glorious bliss to the minds of all beings.

Rigpe Dorje, we supplicate at your feet.

— from Supplication to the Karmapas

The Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Khyapdak Rigpe Dorje, was born in Denkhok in the Derge province of east Tibet, near the Golden River, commonly known as Drichu. His father, Tsewang Ngondrup, who held the rank of a Prince of Derge, was from a noble family called Athup. His mother was named Kalzang Chöden. He was born on the fifteenth day of the sixth month of the Wood-Mouse year (1924), amidst many wondrous signs and indications of the birth of a great being. From the very beginning of his conception, the Fifth Dzogchen Rinpoche Thupten Chökyi Dorje had predicted that he would be an emanation of a great bodhisattva, and chose for the place of birth a secluded pure environment called “Lion Sky Cave.” He had provided guidance on cleansing ceremonies for the birth preparation, and subsequently conferred the name Thupten Gelek.

It is said that at one point toward the very end of the pregnancy, the future Karmapa disappeared entirely from his mother’s womb for a whole day. The day of his birth, his mother returned to her normal pregnancy size and soon gave birth to this great bodhisattva. Those present heard him say to his mother that he would be leaving soon. Tai Situpa had a dream of the Fifteenth Karmapa, in cross-legged meditation posture, holding a bell and dorje and floating above the home of his parents. Before recognizing the incarnation, he checked the details of the birth with those in the prediction letter given by the Fifteenth Karmapa to his student, Gelong Jampal Tsultrim. The letter had been written in a cipher. Jampal Tsultrim handed the letter to the authorities at Tsurphu Monastery, who then asked Tai Situpa, Beru Khyentse, and Jamgön Kongtrul to decode it and clarify the points. A search party subsequently located the incarnation based on the details of the letter. The Eleventh Tai Situpa soon recognized the child as being the new reincarnation of the Gyalwa Karmapa and sought confirmation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Eventually, the Dalai Lama gave his acknowledgment.

At the age of seven, Tai Situpa and Jamgön Kongtrul came to the home of his father, and offered the long life empowerment, a haircut ceremony, full upasaka vow and the name Palden Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, as predicted in the Fifteenth Karmapa’s Last Testament. When he was eight years old, he traveled to Palpung at the invitation of Tai Situpa. On the way to Palpung Monastery, he was received by the King of Derge with a grand reception and also stopped to visit and bless the Derge monastic publishing house, foreshadowing his publication of the Buddhist canon in India. An initial enthronement as the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Khyabdak Rigpe Dorje, from Tai Situpa took place in Palpung. At Palpung he began to receive his basic education from Geshe Tashi Tsering.

A delegation arrived from Tsurphu to invite the Karmapa. Tai Situpa then accompanied him on the long journey to Tsurphu. Along the way, at one of the grand receptions for him during his journey, he was met by the General Secretary, who offered the Karmapa the Black Crown and ceremonial robes brought to him from Tsurphu. At that time, the young Karmapa performed the first Vajra Crown ceremony, and many auspicious and wondrous signs arose. Upon his arrival in Tsurphu, the new incarnation was greeted by Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Nenang Pawo Rinpoche and many other masters, as well as the whole sangha.

Soon after his arrival at Tsurphu, the Sixteenth Karmapa traveled to Lhasa and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama performed a haircut ceremony for the Karmapa, conferring upon Karmapa the name Thupten Rigdröl Yeshe, and offered him the composition of a long-life prayer for the Sixteenth Karmapa. While so doing, the Dalai Lama had a vision of the ever-present wisdom crown above the Karmapa’s head. When the Dalai Lama’s chief cabinet officer became concerned that the Karmapa had not removed his hat when meeting the Dalai Lama, he then realized that the Karmapa was not wearing a material hat but was manifesting a wisdom crown, which the officer was momentarily able to percieve.

Shortly thereafter, the Karmapa was officially enthroned at his main seat of Tsurphu, in the presence of Jamgön Tai Situ, Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo, Kyapgon Drukchen, Mipham Chökyi Wangpo, Gyaltsab Trakpa Gyatso, Pawo Tsuklak Mawa, and many other great masters, dignitaries and lay monastic sangha members. The Sixteenth Karmapa began engaging in intensive studies, including the study of many sutrayana texts with Bo Gangkar Rinpoche.

He subsequently traveled to Palpung Monastery. When traveling to Palpung, many extraordinary signs manifested. At a small lake in the Drong Tup area, in the tradition of the Karmapas and their inconceivable activity, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje left his footprints in water. Among his many teachers were Jamgön Tai Situ Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo, from whom he received the major lineage transmissions, empowerments such as the Kagyu Ngagdzö (a collection of the most precious tantric teachings of the Kagyu lineage), and instructions, and whom he took as his principal guru. In all, the Karmapa spent many years at Palpung receiving transmissions from Tai Situ Rinpoche. At fifteen, while in Palpung, the Karmapa received the novice ordination from Tai Situpa Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo as abbot. Subsequently, he received the bodhisattva vows of both Mahayana lineages of profound view and vast conduct from Tai Situpa, and received the name “Bodhisattva Lodrö Zhiwe Nyingpo Shenpen Chökyi Dawa.” During his stay in Palpung, the Karmapa also traveled extensively ineastern Tibet, including a trip to Dzongsar Monastery, where he was received by Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, and where the Karmapa performed a Vajra Crown ceremony. At the monastery of Chogyur Lingpa, the Karmapa’s arrival resulted in the end of a long drought that had been afflicting the monastery. Karmapa also visited the Lithang Pangphuk monastery, where he left footprints in solid rock. On his way back to Tsurphu in 1940, he conducted the haircutting ceremony for Trungpa Chökyi Gyamtso in Surmang. Also on that trip, he visited Benchen monastery, Thrangu and many other monasteries.

Upon arrival back in Tsurphu, the Karmapa paid his first respects to Tenzin Gyatso, the newly recognized Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Between 1941 and 1944, the young Karmapa spent much time in retreat at Tsurphu monastery, which underwent expansion during this period.

Beginning in 1944, the Karmapa began to strengthen relationships with neighboring Buddhist states in the Himalayan region as well as with India. During a pilgrimage in southern Tibet, he accepted an invitation from Jigme Dorje Wangchuk, the king of Bhutan; the Karmapa and his party visited Bumthang and other areas in Bhutan, engaging in many spiritual activities.

After returning to Tsurphu, in 1946 at the age of twenty-three, he received the full ordination from Tai Situ Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo as abbot. He engaged in restoring and built new temples in Tsurphu and refined monastic practice and study training at Tsurphu.

In 1947, the Karmapa and his party set out on a grand pilgrimage to Nepal, India, and Sikkim, accompanied in part by his younger brother, the Sixth Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. They visited the major places of the Buddha’s life: Lumbini, just inside Nepal where the Buddha was born, Sarnath where he first taught, and Bodh Gaya, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment. He subsequently traveled through Kinnaur in northern India, to Tso Pema, where a host of white snakes suddenly appeared on a legendary lake near one of Guru Rinpoche’s caves, and Purang to visit Mount Kailash. During this pilgrimage, at the request of the Sikkimese Kagyu monasteries, the Karmapa visited Gangtok, Sikkim, where he was received by the King of Sikkim, Tashi Namgyal, at his court. Upon his return to Tibet, he visited many monasteries. Subsequently, the Karmapa returned to Tsurphu. In 1949, he began receiving many transmissions, such as the Rinchen Terdzo (The Great Treasury of the Precious Termas, the hidden teachings of Padmasambhava), the Mahamudra: Ocean of Definitive Meaning pointing out instructions and essential points of the Six Dharmas of Naropa, from the Second Jamgön Kongtrul Palden Khyentse Öser, and the Karmapa took him as one of his principal lineage gurus. He also studied with many other teachers, such as receiving tantric teachings with Khyentse Rinpoche.

In 1954, the Karmapa sent a prediction letter providing the details of the rebirth of the Third Jamgön Kongtrul incarnation; the second had passed into parinirvana in 1952. Also in that year, with the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa and other high lamas of Tibet visited China. Returning to Tibet, the Karmapa went to Palpung to enthrone the reincarnation of Tai Situpa. Returning to Tsurphu, he stopped at many monasteries in eastern Tibet. In 1955, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Tsurphu. Two years later, in 1957, the Karmapa and party traveled to Sikkim and from there continued on pilgrimage to India. The Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and the Karmapa had all been invited by the Mahabodhi Society of India to join the celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of Buddhism. During this trip, the Karmapa and his party revisited the holy sites of India as pilgrims.

Also during this visit, the Karmapa strengthened his ties to his disciples Chögyal Tashi Namgyal, the King of Sikkim and King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk of Bhutan, as well as Jetsun Tsultrim Palmo, the Bhutanese Buddhist princess. While in Sikkim, the King of Sikkim invited him to visit Rumtek, the monastery in Sikkim that the Ninth Karmapa had founded at the end of the sixteenth century. The Karmapa was unable to accept the invitation at that time but said that he would go there in the future when it would be needed. The Karmapa returned from pilgrimage to Tsurphu in 1957. He recognized the reincarnation of Gyaltsabpa, and conducted a haircut ceremony and enthroned him in Tsurphu.

Since the mid-1950’s, hostilities between Chinese troops and residents of eastern Tibet had been growing, and the troubles soon expanded to other regions throughout Tibet. The Karmapa did what he could to mediate the conflicts. He had forseen the development of such troubles, predicting in his composition in 1944 entitled “The Song Whose Time Has Come: The Melodius Hum of a Bee,” that he would soon be required to leave Tsurphu. He had in fact advised some of his students to leave, but himself stayed behind as long as possible. The Sixteenth Karmapa had foreseen the “untold grief ” leaving his “fledgling” disciples behind would cause. However, by 1959, time had run out.

In the Spring of 1959, the Karmapa informed the Dalai Lama of his intention to leave his homeland. Later that year, accompanied by a large entourage, the Karmapa left Tsurphu and fled Tibet. The escape was headed by the General Secretary for the Karmapa, Damchö Yongdu. The traveling party included the reincarnation of Shamar Rinpoche, the young Gyaltsabpa, the Karmapa’s younger brother Ponlop Rinpoche, Dabsang Rinpoche, meditation master Dilyak Drupon Tenzin, and many other masters. The party brought with them whatever they could of the sacred heritage of the Karmapas, including the famous Vajra Crown, statues, paintings, books, reliquaries, and other precious items of the lineage of the Karmapas. The timing and organization of the departure, aided by the foresight of the Karmapa in scheduling the journey, made for relatively easy travel to the border of Bhutan. After three weeks, the party arrived safely in northern Bhutan, where the most senior Bhutanese government officials received them, including Jetsun Tsultrim Palmo, the Bhutanese Buddhist princess. Subsequently, the Karmapa received the King of Bhutan and stengthened their spiritual relationship. The King of Bhutan, and the whole of the Bhutanese citizenry, offered a warm welcome and great service to the party.

Tashi Namgyal, the King (Chögyal) of Sikkim invited the Karmapa to visit, and shortly thereafter the Karmapa received two delegations, one headed by Minister Banyak Athing, representing the government of Sikkim, and the other headed by Minister Atuk Babu, representing the government of India. When the Karmapa arrived in Sikkim, King Tashi Namgyal offered the Karmapa the opportunity to establish his seat in Sikkim. Because of the connection established in the early 1700s between the Twelfth Karmapa Changchub Dorje and the King of Sikkim, the Karmapa accepted Tashi Namgyal’s offer. Two months after entering Bhutan the party arrived in Gangtok, Sikkim. Tai Situ joined the Karmapa at that time. Of the several sites proposed by the King of Sikkim, the Karmapa chose to settle at Rumtek, stating that Rumtek would be his seat outside Tibet, although he planned one day to return to Tsurphu. Shortly after the Chögyal extended his offer, the Karmapa and his party left Gangtok for Rumtek.

Established many centuries earlier through the blessings of the Ninth and Twelfth Karmapas, by 1959 Rumtek Monastery was almost in ruins. The surrounding area was also undeveloped and had no facilities for supporting the Karmapa and his party. The Karmapa, teachers, and community lived in temporary quarters for many years as resources were gathered to begin construction of new facilities to support the Karmapa’s monastic seat and surrounding lay community. During this period, the young incarnation of Jamgön Kongtrul joined the Karmapa. His Holiness performed the hair-cutting ceremony, enthroned him as the Third Jamgön Kongtrul, and conferred many empowements upon him.

In 1962, Benchen Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche and Ponlop Rinpoche passed away in Rumtek.

Construction to build a new seat for the Karmapa at Rumtek began when the foundation stone of the new monastic center was laid by the new king of Sikkim, who had assumed responsibility for the kingdom after his predecessor had passed away. Construction was led by the Karmapa’s General Secretary, Damchö Yongdu. It was funded primarily through the generosity of the Sikkimese royal family and that of the Indian government, the latter funding arising from the Karmapa’s meeting with Pandit Nehru.

The Karmapa requested His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to allow the recognition of the Shamar Rinpoche line of reincarnate masters (which had been abrogated in 1791 by Chinese Imperial edict). After His Holiness agreed, the Karmapa recognized the Shamar incarnation in 1964. He also recognized the incarnations of the Twelfth Kyapgön Drukchen and Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche. Construction of Rumtek was completed in 1965, and the sacred items and relics brought from Tsurphu were installed there. On Tibetan New Year’s Day, the Sixteenth Karmapa officially inaugurated the new seat, called “The Dharmachakra Centre, a place of erudition and spiritual accomplishment, the seat of the glorious Karmapa.” From that time forward, the Karmapa began the process of reinstituting the study and practice traditions of the Karmapas as had been continued over the centuries at Tsurphu, Karma Gön and the Karmapas’ other seats and meditation retreats in Tibet. The Sixteenth Karmapa appointed Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche as Chief Abbot and Venerable Tenga Rinpoche as Vajra Master of the new main seat in Rumtek. The Sixteenth Karmapa established a three year retreat center in Sikkim and appointed Venerable Bokar Rinpoche as the Retreat Master. The Karmapa established many monasteries and retreat centers in Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Ladakh and many other parts of India. In Calcutta, he established Karma Gön. He trained many eminent rinpoches, lamas and monks at his main seat in Rumtek. The Karmapa recognized many incarnations, including the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, whom he enthroned in 1968, and the Dilyak Drupon Tenzin Rinpoche.

From the early 1960’s, the Karmapa inspired and gave guidance to many Kagyu masters for bringing the genuine lineage teachings of wisdom and compassion to Western countries, Africa, southeast Asia and Australia. He established many centers in the West, in America, Canada, and Europe, such as Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in New York, and in Asia. Under the guidance of the Karmapa, hundreds of dharma centers have been established throughout the world and thousands of dedicated and enthusiastic students have been trained in the study and meditation practices of the Buddhadharma.

In 1974 the Sixteenth Karmapa set out on his first world tour, visiting the United States, Canada, and Europe. Accompanied by other teachers, and a full entourage of monks and staff, he performed the Black Crown ceremony in the Western hemisphere for the first time, gave empowerments, and provided Dharma advice. In January the next year, the Karmapa flew to Rome and met with Pope Paul VI.

During 1976-77, the Karmapa again traveled to the West for a more extended visit, followed by a wide-ranging world tour. He visited religious centers on four continents and met heads of state, religious leaders, elders of many traditions, and people from the world of the arts.

On November 28, 1979, the Karmapa laid the ground for the construction of Karme Chökor-Ü (Karme Dharma Chakra Central) in New Delhi, at a ceremony attended by the president and prime minister of India. The Centre was envisioned as an international study, practice, and translation center. During this time also, the Karmapa engaged in an extensive preservation and publication process to conserve endangered Buddhist scriptures. During the late 70s and 80s, he arranged for the publication and distribution of the Kagyur (the translated words of the Buddha Shakyamuni) and the Tengyur (the translated treatises of Indian masters). The Kagyur was distributed without cost to all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and the Tengyur was distributed for a nominal fee.

In 1980, the Karmapa began the construction of Karma Shri Nalanda Monastic College (Shedra), which was to become the central institution for providing complete and comprehensive training for monastics in all aspects of Buddhist studies in general and in the Kagyu lineage view in particular. He also provided the complete roadmap for the Shedra by drafting the curriculum for students and creating an operating plan for the school. The Shedra was blessed by the Dalai Lama and later officially inaugurated shortly after the Karmapa entered parinirvana in 1981.

The Karmapa’s last world tour began in May 1980 and took him to Greece, England, the United States, and Southeast Asia, where he gave teachings, Black Crown ceremonies, empowerments, interviews, audiences, and engaged in many beneficial activities.

The Sixteenth Karmapa’s Last Testament was extensive and detailed, consisting of a number of prophetic poems and a detailed letter. Although he had predicted in 1944 that he would someday be forced to leave Tsurphu, he also promised in that poem that he would someday return “in great joy” to Tsurphu. “In January of 1981, he gave to his heart son, the Twelfth Tai Situpa, a protection amulet with a brocade cover, and said, “This is your protection amulet. In the future, it will confer great benefit.” Many years later, the amulet was discovered to contain the Sixteenth Karmapa’s Last Testament giving details about the birth of the Seventeenth Karmapa:


Self-awareness is always bliss;

The dharmadhatu has no center nor edge.

From here to the north [in] the east of [the land] of snow

Is a country where divine thunder spontaneously blazes

[In] a beautiful nomad’s place with the sign of a cow,

The method is Döndrub and the wisdom is Lolaga.

[Born in] the year of the one used for the earth

[With] the miraculous, far-reaching sound of the white one;

[This] is the one known as Karmapa.

His is sustained by Lord Donyö Drupa;

Being nonsectarian, he pervades all directions;

Not staying close to some and distant from others, he is the protector of all beings:

The sun of the Buddha’s Dharma that benefits others always blazes.

— from His Holiness the 16th Karmapa’s letter of prediction

On November 5, 1981, the Sixteenth Karmapa passed into parinirvana at the American International Clinic in Zion, Illinois. His kudung (body) was flown back to India. Karmapa’s cremation ceremony took place at Rumtek monastery on December 20. Indian dignitaries and thousands of his disciples from all over the world attended. Innumerable auspicious signs and symbols manifested at that time, and in particular, the Karmapa’s face appeared inside the halo of a rainbow encircling the sun. The image was captured in a photograph. The following day, a general Karma Kagyu meeting was held in Rumtek at the request of the General Secretary Damchö Yongdu. He requested Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche to form a council of regents to take joint responsibility for the spiritual affairs of the Karma Kagyu lineage. He also asked them to locate Karmapa’s instructions concerning his next rebirth and thus bring forward his next incarnation. The four Rinpoches accepted the task and expressed their sincere desire to fulfill the wishes of the Sixteenth Karmapa.

The ashes from the cremation fire were distributed, and afterwards numerous people found that relics spontaneously arose over time from those ashes. The main relics of the Karmapa were subsequently enshrined in a large golden stupa at Rumtek. The Karmapa also left a thuk-jakchen-sum at the cremation, which was subsequently enshrined in a small golden stupa. This stupa project was completed by the General Secretary Damchö Yongdu, and the stupa consecration ceremony was held in 1982 on Lha Bab Duchen. The ceremony was attended by the all members of the council of regents, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, and many other eminent masters, as well as lamas and disciples. The General Secretary passed away in Bhutan some few weeks later.