Death and Our Journey Through the Bardo, March 14 – 16

deathandourjourneythroughthebardo_edited-1Bardo is the Tibetan term referring to the intermediate state between the end of this life and the beginning of the next life. Additional bardos include this life and the process of death and dying. As such, bardo states encompass all possible experiences throughout life, death, and rebirth. They are times of transition, uncertainty, and difficulty which require special instructions to pass through without harm or fear.

It is therefore crucial for all Dharma practitioners to know what to do at the time of death and afterward. Without proper instruction and training in the bardo states while we are alive now, we may experience disastrous consequences later on. Nonetheless, for a qualified practitioner with understanding and stable meditation, these states offer the possibility of liberation from the fearful ocean of samsara or at least a meaningful rebirth where we can continue on the path to liberation.

“Anyone that has been born will certainly die, therefore if we can receive bardo teaching if would be like obtaining a map for the eventual journey we all have to take at the end of our lives. At that time, having been well informed of what is to come, we will be prepared and will know what to expect, and as a result will have no fear.”
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

The bardo teachings found within the vajrayana are incredibly profound. Especially, the uncommon teachings of the great terma scripture called “Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo” offer the most detailed instructions on the stages of experience of the successive bardos and what we need to know and practice now as preparation.


Lama Tashi Dondup at KTD.

It is an extraordinary opportunity to receive these teachings directly from a lama as qualified and experienced as Lama Tashi Dondup. A gelong or fully ordained monk as well as a tantric ritual master and artist, Lama Tashi has received and practiced a vast array of vajrayana teachings over the course of many years.

He now spends his life tirelessly imparting the Dharma to fortunate disciples throughout the world. His center in Toronto, Karma Tekchen Zabsal Ling, has a large, beautiful mandala dedicated to the Buddha of Compassion, the Eleven Faced, One Thousand Armed Chenrezik, that was created and designed by Lama Tashi.

– Lama Zopa Tarchin

Registration link for “Death and Our Journey Through the Bardo” here

FINDING VAJRAPANI: Michael Erlewine and H. E. Gyaltsap Rinpoche, 1995

– Michael Erlewine


His Eminence Gyaltsap Rinpoche

This is a story from our trip to India in 1995, primarily when we traveled to West Bengal and Sikkim where I hoped to request the Vajrapani empowerment from His Eminence Gyaltsap Rinpoche, one of my heroes, and said to be the emanation of Vajrapani in our lineage.

Many years before I had written to His Eminence personally, expressing my deep desire to take (and request that he give) this particular empowerment. I would always receive back the acknowledgment of my letters, but no scheduled trips to America. Now I was traveling (hopefully) for an audience with Gyaltsap Rinpoche in person. It might be helpful to provide some background to this story.

In dharma practice, if we keep at it, we eventually get past beginning meditation practice, work our way through the Extraordinary Preliminaries (ngondro), and finally end up doing what is called our yidam practice, which for many of us becomes a lifetime practice, something very similar in some respects to the Native American practice of choosing a sacred animal. We choose our yidam, the special qualities and deity we resonate with.

In Tibetan Buddhism there are many qualities and the deities that we may be drawn to. In my case, I connected rather early-on with the bodhisattva Vajrapani, one of the protector deities of the lineage that is usually charged with protecting the secrets of the dharma from degradation.

Since the dharma itself is the truth, it is adamantine, unyieldingly fierce in the face of ignorance and those parts of us that resist change. That is the activity of Vajrapani. As an archivist (and protector) of popular culture (,,, etc.), Vajrapani just felt natural to me.

Anyway, for whatever reasons I somehow latched onto Vajrapani as the particular deity that I resonate with, and did my best to learn what I could about that deity and those qualities. Furthermore, I wanted to do that particular practice. However, it is required to be properly empowered for any deity you intend to practice the sadhana of, in this case Vajrapani. The bad news is that it appeared that the Vajrapani empowerment was not generally given, at least not in the circles of rinpoches in which I moved. So of course I cast about for information as to where I could get such an empowerment and from whom.

I eventually found out that one of the four heart-sons of the Karmapa (also called the Four Eminences or regents) is considered the emanation of Vajrapani. This is His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsap Rinpoche, who is said to embody the activity of Vajrapani within our lineage. That was the good news. The bad news is that Gyaltsap Rinpoche lives in Sikkim India, and almost never travels. He was like a yogi and not likely to be coming to a monastery near me any time soon, much less offer that empowerment.

As mentioned, His Eminence Gyaltsap Rinpoche is more of a yogi than the average lama in our lineage, spending most of his time in practice and semi-retreat. Because of the various problems within the lineage, he has also been the main lama to watch over Rumtek Monastery (the seat of His Holiness the Karmapa in India) all of these years. Not given to small talk or to superficial gestures (he is not much on smiles), Gyaltsap Rinpoche just stares at you straight on, so I was told. There he is; what you see is what you get. I always identified with him because I am much the same way, at least not given to laughter for laughter’s sake. Perhaps it would be of further help if I explain something about the Karmapa and his four heart sons, the eminences.

The head of the Kagyu lineage, the Gyalwa Karmapa is now in his 17th incarnation, and his name this time is Ogyen Trinley Dorje. Each Karmapa usually has four principal students, called his heart sons or regents. Each Karmapa then empowers these four regents with the transmission of his mind teachings. He literally pours his knowledge and the teachings into the minds of these four students (heart sons) when they are young. Then, when the Karmapa passes on, he leaves a letter telling these four heart sons where he will be born, sometimes the names of his parents, and often in what direction he can be found. The Karmapa is the only reincarnate lama to do this, the 17th in the lineage.

In the case of the Dalai Lama (the 14th to date), the successive Dalai Lamas are selected by a committee, who present possible young candidates with the rigorous test of having them choose from a variety of ritual implements the correct implement that was used by the preceding Dalai Lama, and so forth. It is more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

However, in the case of the Karmapa, as mentioned, a letter is left saying where to find his successor, and various related information. There is no committee. All they have to do is find him. So my point here is that, based on the letter, once the new Karmapa is found, then the four regents (heart sons) are tasked with teaching the young Karmapa what had been passed on to them. They pour the teachings they were given back into the young Karmapa, and so it goes, generation after generation, like leap frog.

The Erlewines and H. E. Gyalsap Rinpoche

The Erlewines and H. E. Gyalsap Rinpoche

His Eminence Gyaltsap Rinpoche is one of the four regents or heart sons of the Karmapa, each of which is the emanation of a particular quality and deity. The four regents are: Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, the emanation of the bodhisattva Manjushri, Tai Situ Rinpoche, the emanation of Maitreya Buddha, Shamar Rinpoche, the emanation of Amitabha Buddha, and Gyaltsap Rinpoche, the emanation of the bodhisattva Vajrapani. I have had the very good fortune to meet and personally receive these particular empowerments from all four heart sons themselves.

Some years earlier, I had requested the same Vajrapani empowerment from my own root lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, and to my surprise he agreed to give that empowerment (for the first time that I know of) at our dharma center here in Big Rapids Michigan. Along with the empowerment, I received the lung (transmission) and instructions for practice, and that became my practice for a long while.

Along the way our center put that sadhana into a pecha (Tibetan book format) and shared it with others. And some time later Rinpoche asked me to instruct our sangha in that practice, which I did. That is the only time I have done any instruction in the KTD shrine room at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery, but I have received teachings from Rinpoche for over 30 years there.

In 1995, when I knew we were going to India and Tibet on pilgrimage, of course I wanted to visit Gyaltsap Rinpoche and once again request that same empowerment from him personally, since he is the emanation of Vajrapani. And as I rejoin this story, we are now on our way to India, including Sikkim, and that is where His Eminence Gyaltsap Rinpoche lived.

Michael Erlewine and Ngodrup Burkhar

Michael Erlewine and Ngodrup Burkhar

We had finally arrived at the monastery of the great meditation-master Bokar Rinpoche in the village of Mirik in West Bengal, where our friend Ngodup Burkhar had been waiting to receive us. Ngodup was worried when we did not show up on time. When we finally showed up, two days late, he must have realized that we were not exactly savvy travelers in India. Probably worried about our fate, he immediately volunteered to join and guide us for the next week on our pilgrimage.

We owe a lot of the success of our India trip to our dear friend Ngodup Burkhar. Ngodup previously served as translator and attended to our teacher Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche for over twelve years, so we knew him well. He was living in Mirik, where he was then translating for the Ven. Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, who is considered the spiritual heir (heart-son) to the great yogi Kalu Rinpoche, holder of the Shangpa Kagyu Lineage. Bokar Rinpoche is considered one of the main meditation masters in the Karma Kagyu lineage.

There is no way I can thank Ngodup for this kind of sacrifice and the gift of his self and time, not to mention that he is one of the most fun people to be with that I have ever known. I have always wondered about and been on the lookout to possibly encounter a bodhisattva in whatever appearance he or she might make. It is my firm belief that Ngnodrup Burkhar is such a person. With that said, on with the story.

From Mirik, my wife, son, and I headed out of West Bengal India for Sikkim along with Ngodup and our driver, but we never really went back down to the steamy lowlands. Instead, we clung to the narrow ribbon-like mountain roads from village to town and onward. The roads were slippery and frequently fog and mist covered, really only space enough for one vehicle, so there was lots of stopping and backing up to let some other car or bus pass. We were heading for the Sikkim border and then on to Ralang and the monastery of His Eminence Gyaltsap Rinpoche.

We soon found ourselves driving through large tracts of tea plantations, gardens, and into a vast rain forest, complete with insects singing, ferns growing…all of it wet, wet, and ever green.

This was the tail end of the monsoon season and the rains were just beginning to diminish. But for us, the roads got worse, with landslides and at times entire sections of road missing. Local road crews, with shovels and picks were everywhere, trying to keep up with the sliding mud. As we traveled the final stretch to the monastery, such a large section of road had slid away that we had to creep (with breath held) over what little road remained, clinging to the cliff-side in our jeep, with one set of wheels edging over the space where the road was missing and a sheer drop awaited, and with all of us on the other side of the jeep, leaning into the cliff. I didn’t care much for that. In fact, I soon learned never to ride in the front seat, because I did not want to see what risks were being taken. We finally arrived safely.

Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s monastery was magnificent and huge. Almost brand new, it stood out among the mountains of Sikkim, right in the middle of what seemed like a rain forest or jungle. Huge beetles and moths were everywhere to be seen in the early mornings. Thanks to Ngodrup and our connections with Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, we were treated like old friends, given the best of rooms, and fed often and well. Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s personal attendant even ate with us and insisted on showing us around the monastery complex himself. Aside from the main shrine hall, where we were able to practice, we saw the special shrine where His Eminence does the red-crown ceremony plus the exquisite apartment they have built for His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa, whenever he may happen to visit. At that time the Karmapa was essentially a prisoner in his ancestral monastery in Tibet.

What a great spirit there was at Ralang, with everything new, and the energy level high. The gompa (main shrine hall) and additional shrines were all exquisite, and we even got a chance to see the dharmapala (protector) shrine, which was not yet completed. For this, they had brought in a master sculptor who then lived there for some extended period of time to create the most beautiful Mahakala statue I have ever seen. About 6-7 feet tall, it was hand fashioned from clay and had yet to be painted. As you can see from the picture, it is exquisite and complete to the last detail. This was one of about ten different statues that this craftsman had sculpted. I have never seen anything better. They were awesome.

"The most beautiful Mahakala statue I have ever seen. About 6-7 feet tall, it was hand fashioned from clay and had yet to be painted."

“The most beautiful Mahakala statue I have ever seen. About 6-7 feet tall, it was hand fashioned from clay and had yet to be painted.”

That first afternoon we were there we had a brief interview with Gyaltsap Rinpoche, during which I formally requested from him the Vajrapani empowerment, one of my main practices. As mentioned, I had written to Rinpoche over the years, inviting him to visit our center, and had always dreamed of receiving this empowerment from His Eminence himself, since he is the emanation of Vajrapani in our lineage.

And even though his schedule was very tight, His Eminence agreed to give that empowerment the next morning. And so it was. In his private quarter, my family and I received the Vajrapani empowerment “Dorje Tumpo,” a wrathful emanation of Vajrapani and part of a cycle of empowerments originally gathered by the 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje.

Our stay at Ralung was, for some reason, very full of meaningful events, both large and small, sequenced back to back. Moreover, the food was great or we were ‘tasting’ great at the time. The giant beetles and moths and the closeness of the rain forest lent an almost unworldly (at least for Midwesterners) feel to the visit. The place was charged and we were up to it. The memory, even today, remains clear and present – a very special time. Aside from the empowerment, watching the lama dances in the very early morning fog made a deep imprint.

1912411_10152271409942658_1381969497_o[All photos by Margaret or myself.]

Root Institute: Mahamudra Arises Spontaneously

DSC_3126Root Institute is an oasis of peace and tranquility, like a Pure Land within the environmental chaos of Bodhgaya. His Holiness Karmapa’s teaching after the Kagyu Monlam at the Institute established by Lama Zopa Rinpoche has become an annual tradition, a special event eagerly awaited by His Holiness’ Western students.

IMG_0110When His Holiness enters the cosy shrine room, it feels like he has come home to his sitting room, in marked contrast to the vast space of the Kagyu Monlam Pavilion which seats 10,000.

To create the right atmosphere, the Venerable Ani Sarah read Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s translation of Guru Rinpoche’s teaching on the benefits of making offerings to the Bodhgaya stupa (and all stupas) – a lengthy poetic treatise covering every possible object of offering and its incalculable benefits.

With this preparation, His Holiness Karmapa enters and offers a katak (white scarf) to the life-like photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama resting on the throne. Karmapa’s own throne is garlanded in brilliant orange and gold marigolds.

_MG_0759Lama Zopa Rinpoche sits on a very low seat to His Holiness’ left, looking a little frail from a stroke he suffered a few years ago. With determination born of pure devotion, Lama Zopa Rinpoche makes prostrations touching the ground with his entire body, stretching out his limbs as far as the human body can reach. The Karmapa protests several times, but Lama Zopa Rinpoche offers his body, speech and mind to the Buddha, his lightly trembling hands holding the mandala plate. After their heads touch in blessing, he offers the Karmapa a thangka painting.

HIs Holiness expresses his pleasure at meeting Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Root Institute for the first time since Lama Rinpoche became ill. His Holiness extends warm greetings to staff and sangha and a deep admiration for the wonderful work of Root Institute encompassing the noble vision of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. ”I express my heartfelt appreciation and rejoice in particular in the area of Bodhgaya,” His Holiness says. “There’s a lot of wonderful projects going on.”

DSC_3328His Holiness continued: “I don’t have the ability to articulate the dharma or the experience of it. It’s not a matter of putting on a good show with body and speech. It’s mixing the dharma with one’s mind, taming one’s hardened mind, and diminishing mental afflictions.  We may appear to be a dharma person, but faced with adverse circumstances, it turns into another story.

“We can’t leave the dharma outside our everyday life. Its purpose is to diminish our afflictions. Under ideal circumstances, one can feel one is developing, but faced with adversity, our practice doesn’t always hold. We have to apply an antidote on a consistent basis.

“We entertain our mental afflictions. Once we feed them they strengthen out of the feedback we give them. Leave them alone and let go. Then they will weaken. Letting go will make them more and more powerless.

“Mahamudra texts say one must not pursue mental afflictions, but when they arise, one shouldn’t worry about it. For example, someone on a journey will see various scenery. One doesn’t have to stop seeing what one sees, nor does one have to be alarmed. The journey must go on.

“We tend to claim ownership of what is on the path.  Rather it is a journey of noticing mental afflictions, looking at their essential nature. Then mental afflictions will become powerless because they are not automatically equipped with the power to overwhelm us.

“By feeding them, mental afflictions gain strength. Whatever is concocted like lies, must come to the surface. If one doesn’t entertain it, the mental afflictions will be defeated by themselves.

“We have to confront the afflictions with all means and methods and if we can weaken their power we can tame and even uproot them. All dharmas come to the same point. All the profound instructions aim to uproot our mental afflictions. It is important to understand this.

“Our mental disease is an old disease that has been with us from beginning-less time. It’s difficult to rely on a doctor because the doctor cannot cure it completely. Sometimes we consider the Buddha to be a doctor who gives us the medicine. But if we don’t eat it or use it properly, good medicine is not enough. We are the patient. We need to take responsibility. Sometimes we feel very spiritual and think, ‘I must get some degree of realization, or spiritual power;’ but in real life, things change. In real life situations, we become another person. That kind of dharma practice is not very useful.

“We must have the spiritual power to face emotions and obstacles. This is what makes a dharma practitioner, or authentic practitioner. Sometimes we need to use different kinds of methods. All kinds of methods were used by great masters in the past. These provide inspiration to understand how to control the emotions. But we really need to find a personal method, not just follow the methods of great masters in the past.

“Dedicated consistent integration of the dharma into everyday life is the practical approach to dharma practice.”

IMG_0106The Karmapa’s talk began in Tibetan, jumped seamlessly into English, then returned to Tibetan. As it ended, His Holiness left the shrine room supporting Lama Zopa, who was smiling and walking despite his physical condition.

Starting with an initial reluctance to teach Mahamudra, the Karmapa’s talk turned into spontaneous Mahamudra, brilliantly encapsulating the essential moment of letting go and just doing it.

– Naomi Levine

Naomi Levine’s recent book about the 16th Karmapa is now available at Namse Bangzo Bookstore: Miraculous 16th Karmapa: Incredible Encounters with the Black Crown Buddha

VISITING THE GOLDEN CHILD: Michael Erlewine’s 1995 Pilgrimage to see His Holiness the 17th Karmapa

In 1995, at the request of my dharma teacher, I took my family on a pilgrimage to Tibet to see the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, the young Tibetan lama that the Eddie Murphy movie “The Golden Child” is said to be based on, the idea, essentially, that the Karmapa is a living Buddha. Like the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa is the head of one of the four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. At the time of this trip the Karmapa was 12-years old, but his incarnation goes back seventeen generations. In fact the Karmapa Lineage was the first of Tibet’s reincarnated lamas. The current Karmapa is the 17th, while the current Dalai Lama is the 14th.

I had no real idea how this trip would affect me. We were just told to make the trip by our guru, so we did. I will pick up the story from the point where we actually arrived at the Karmapa’s ancestral home, Tsurphu Monastery in the Tolung Valley, deep in the mountains of Tibet at some 15,000 feet in altitude. There I sat, with my wife, two of my daughters, and my son in a little room waiting to see the Karmapa. We were about to spend three days there as the Karmapa’s guests.

Every day at 1 PM the Karmapa has a public reception, where a procession of visitors file up, offer a white scarf, and get his blessing. We wanted to do that too, but were told to wait and that His Holiness would see us privately. We had come with letters of introduction from a number of high lamas, including H.E. Tai Situ Rinpoche, who had been to our meditation center twice. It seemed that from the moment we arrived, all the monks there knew we were Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s students. We could see them whispering. In their eyes we belonged to Khenpo Rinpoche, and they seemed to know exactly who that was, even way out here in Tibet.

The time ticked away on the slow track as we waited with anticipation to see the Karmapa. I had last seen His Holiness in 1974, but in his previous incarnation as the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje, yet I felt like I had been in endless touch with him through the lineage all this time. Like the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa is the spiritual leader of an entire lineage of Tibetan monks, one most famous for its yogis and meditators. And this trip happened so fast. Up to a month ago, we had little hope of ever seeing the Karmapa in person, since it was very uncertain when the Chinese would ever let him leave Tibet. He was essentially a prisoner in his own monastery. The Chinese watched him all the time. And now, here we were at his ancestral home, about to meet him in person.

[Note: The young Karmapa, pretending to be in solitary retreat, slipped away from the monastery and escaped to India from Tibet in December of 1999.]

At last, the summons came. The Karmapa would see us now. So off we went in single file toward his interview room, some two stories up from where we were. And I was right in the middle of the worst of my altitude sickness, still sick and getting sicker. I don’t do well at high altitudes, slipping into bronchitis, having to go on antibiotics, and all of that. It happens every time I go to Tibet.

As I climbed the steep stairs toward His Holiness I had to stop and do heavy breathing, just to keep enough oxygen in my lungs. Every few steps, I would find myself gasping for breath as I climbed upward toward the interview room. And please understand that the average Tibetan stairway is more like a ladder (like on a boat) than the kind of stairs we are used to, and steep. You literally hang on as you climb.

We eventually came to a small courtyard in the open sun outside His Holiness’ interview room, where we took off our shoes. I actually had to sit down on the roof and pant. How embarrassing. And then up another short ladder to the interview room itself, where I arrived, still trying to catch my breath. I plopped down at the back of the room, while everyone else went on up front and prostrated to the Karmapa. I was so bushed that I did not (at first) remember to do the three traditional prostrations that practitioners do before any great lama. All I could see was this young man kind of inset into a wall of golden brocade at the far end of the room. I slowly moved forward.

Through the 1960s and onward, in my quest for spiritual teachers, I had seen many gurus, yogis, teachers in person, and so was preparing myself to actually be in the presence of the Karmapa. In the past, when I met great spiritual presences, most were imposing, some almost regal. I was getting ready for a similar experience here, you know, me seeing his powerful presence, but the Karmapa was different. In the end, in his presence, it was myself that I saw, not him. Here is how that happened.

As I reached the front of the room, there was the Karmapa, looking better than I could even imagine, and I had imagined he would be great. All of 12 years old (by our calendar) and five feet tall, but seeming seven feet tall and ageless, he filled the room with his presence. All I remember is how happy I was to see him; He was not scary or distant. He was happy to see me too. I remember kind of getting through my prostrations and fumbling to offer him a white scarf, while kneeling down before him.

He looked at me like I had never been looked at before. His eyes look straight into my eyes and then he upped the ante by focusing intently within me. I was being seen. His dark eyes, almost like the ever-adjusting lens of an auto-focus camera, were actually moving in and out, trying to get the right focus. I had never seen eyes do that, be able to lock gaze with you and then, with the gazed locked, still move in and out, getting a fix. But that was just how it was. The Karmapa examined me for a few seconds and, in the grip of his eyes, it seemed as though time stopped, and then it all relaxed and time moved on again. He placed the white scarf over my head, gave me a welcoming, kind look, and I sat down in front of him with the rest of our group.

I became aware that there was chanting going on, and gradually realized we were in the middle of the Mahakala puja, perhaps the most important daily practice for the Karma Kagyu Lineage. Later we found out that we were experiencing a special form of Mahakala, one for insiders, complete with Tsok, the ritual feast offering. Karmapa was sharing this with us.

It was very intense, with His Holiness leading the chanting with an intent and often fierce look. Mahakala is a wrathful practice, as some of you may already know, one invoking the fierce deities that protect the dharma. And this one was complete with drums, cymbals, and the various Tibetan horns. I had experienced the Mahakala puja before, but never one quite like this, certainly not one with the Karmapa himself leading it! And I don’t quite know how to describe what happened next.

I begin to identify with this puja as not much different from my own practice in many ways, and I found myself examining just where I was with my daily practice, and what it was all about for me. I had done it, without fail, every morning and afternoon/evening for many years. I was to do it until my death or until I completed it by realizing the essential nature of my own mind, whichever came first.

Now, here in the midst of Karmapa’s mandala, I began to explore the true meaning and nature of that practice. What was that practice and what was the essence of it? I thought how in my own idea of myself, to my mind, I was somewhat of a tough character and I carried that strength or toughness into my practice. In fact, I loved the fierce wrathful deities, somehow identifying with them. And now, there in that room with Karmapa, that same strength, toughness, or we might even say fierceness came up in the mind and began to be examined inwardly, but in a new light. And this was no thought or idea that I was playing with. Instead, I was examining myself or, to be more exact, I was realizing part of my self, in this case, that part that had been practicing all these years, the one who did the practice.

And as this realization took place, I saw how my fierceness or toughness was but just a shell or shield covering up this extremely sensitive inside. I was tough, because I was so… so sensitive and, at heart, even kind. In that moment I was flooded with a state of compassion or rather the realization that I was (and always had been), at my deepest part, compassionate, concerned, and caring, and that this was my natural state. It was not something to strive for, but already in fact already always the case – the state of my very being, something that only had to be uncovered and opened up. I did not have to strive to be compassionate, for that was already my natural state. All I had to do was to let go of the attachments that obscured this insight, relax, and just let it shine through.

Again, I should point out that this was not a concept or idea, but an intense realization that totally involved me. I realized that the essence of my practice, of my fierce presence, was none other than compassion. It was as if, like taking off a glove, I had turned myself inside out. Tears just flowed as I was overcome with this, now so obvious, realization that I was, in essence, very simple – just a soft-hearted, easy mark for this world. And all of my toughness, my fierceness, was nothing more than an attempt to cover over and shield myself from responding too much to all the suffering I saw around me. In that moment, I understood myself and my practice, right in midst of that Mahakala puja with Karmapa. My mind was at rest.

And later, when we left the Karmapa and very slowly drove back down the 40-miles of road that was not really much of a road at all, we saw rainbow after rainbow after rainbow.

So that is what Karmapa was about to me, not some powerful being sitting on a throne. Rather, there was enough space and expanded time within the embrace of the Karmapa’s mental mandala and presence for me to realize myself. It was not the Karmapa I saw when I was with him, but myself. That is my definition of a spiritual being, one who helps us realize ourselves, not who they are.

After the puja, we spent some time together with the Karmapa during which he gave the answers to the questions that we had brought to him. He did not skirt the tough questions, but was clear and unequivocal in his answers. I was deeply relieved, both from the experience I just described and to hear the various particular answers. And later, he came out in the courtyard and just kind of hung out with us. After all, my son Michael Andrew was about the same age. I doubt that very many western families with kids had ever made it to Tsurphu Monastery.

I had heard many stories about His Holiness, both this incarnation and the previous incarnations, stories of amazing actions, all pointing to this extraordinary being. Somehow these stories help to inspire faith and confidence in the Karmapa, that he is who he is — that sort of thing. Yet these stories were nothing compared to the sheer largeness of his presence. “Seeing is believing,” and this kind of thing defies words. How do you explain that when you are in the presence of His Holiness, you have a different idea of yourself, of who you are, why you are here, etc.? I learned things about myself when I was in his presence that I never knew before, important things. The word is “realization.” I realized things about myself that I had never realized before.

And I understood why my teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, wanted us to go to Tibet and meet the Karmapa in person. It occurred to me that for any person with a connection to His Holiness, before continuing your life, drop everything and do whatever it takes to go and meet the Karmapa in person. And only after that pick up your life again. I didn’t understand who I was or how best to make use of my life until I met His Holiness. They say that the Karmapa, along with the Dalai Lama, are emanations of pure compassion. I always understood that, but what I did not realize my own nature was the same. That is worth knowing.

Yeas ago, phrases like “His Holiness” and “guru” were literally foreign to me and smacked of exotic cults and all of that stuff, a hangover perhaps from the New-Age spiritual fads of the 1970s. But meeting the Karmapa, eyeball-to-eyeball, was not foreign at all. It was only too familiar, like finally knowing myself for who I am, confirming who it is I always hoped I was. The entire book of our journey is a free-read here:

[Some photos of the 17th Karmapa, including one from our first meeting. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a photographer during His Holiness' two visits to his seat in America, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery. These photos were taken by Margaret or myself.]

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Maximum Auspiciousness: Best Tibetan Days for Generosity, 2014


According to Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, the Four Great Occasions (holy days related to events in the life of the historical Buddha), the solar and lunar eclipse days and the days called Drubjor (Attainment of Success) are excellent days for performing virtuous actions, as the merit of those actions multiplies a great deal on those days.

Auspicious Days for Giving, 2014

(Dates selected from Nitartha “Complete Tibetan Calendar”)

Solar Eclipse Days:

Tuesday April 29

Thursday Oct. 23

Lunar Eclipse Days:

Tuesday April 15

Wednesday Oct. 8

Drubjor (Attainment of Success) Days:

Saturday Jan. 11, 2014

Thursday March 13, 2014

Sunday June 8, 2014

Sunday July 6, 2014

Monday July 14, 2014

Wednesday Aug. 6, 2014

Monday Aug. 11, 2014

Friday Aug. 15, 2014

Tuesday Aug. 19, 2014

Friday Sept. 12, 2014

Tuesday Sept. 16, 2014

Saturday Oct. 11, 2014

Thursday Dec. 11, 2014

Four Great Occasions (Duchen):

Chotrul Duchen (Buddha’s Performance of Miracles): Friday, February 14

Saka Dawa Duchen (Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment, Death): Friday June 13

Chokhor Duchen (Buddha’s First Teaching): Thursday, July 31

Lhabab Duchen (Buddha’s Descent from Heaven): Thursday, November 13

The Virtual Sangha: A Busy Buddhist’s Best Friend

By Addison Shierry

In Buddhism, the Sangha, or community, is one of the three precious jewels, and its role in the life of a practitioner is invaluable.  The Sangha acts as family, close friend, support system, teacher and student – positions vital to a practitioner’s development and progression on the path.

However, the age in which we live does not always afford us the opportunity to spend as much time with our Buddhist brothers and sisters as we might like – an issue facing many members of our community on a very regular basis.  For many months now, I have found myself in this exact situation as I juggle multiple jobs while pursuing a Master’s degree and attempting to fulfill the many commitments made to my partner, friends and family.

Fortunately, I have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a fellow member of my Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist family who has developed a system to overcome the dilemma of finding Sangha in a busy modern life.

In 1995, Tom Studer was attending college in Columbus, Ohio, and enrolled in a general philosophy course.  It was in this course that Tom was first introduced to Tibetan Buddhism through the practice of the recitation of the bodhisattva Chenrezik’s mantra—Om Mani Peme Hung.  This experience led Tom to seek out books on Buddhism to further his knowledge of the dharma.

In 1998, Tom moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where he had the opportunity to attend a dharma talk given at a local library by Lama Kathy Wesley, a Western teacher of the Karma Kagyu lineage.  Three years later, Tom took refuge with Lama Kathy, and has since practiced dharma, attended retreats and made frequent visits to the Karma Thegsum Chöling Tibetan Buddhist Center in Columbus.

Tom found himself struggling to make the three-hour commute from Cincinnati to Columbus because of many of the issues that most of us face with our work life, familial obligations and other scheduling conflicts.  Tom attempted to solve this problem by establishing a Buddhist study group in the greater Cincinnati area.

Things got off to a good start with the study group, but over time, Tom said, scheduling consistent meeting times that fit everyone’s schedules became exceedingly difficult. In search for an answer, Tom approached a dear friend, Carol Winkelmann, whom he knew had spent some time practicing meditation with another group in the same area.

“Carol had a friend who lived far enough away that in-person meetings were not possible and so the two coordinated meditation with each other through text messages,” Tom said.  Immediately, Tom recognized the potential for this type of “Virtual Sangha” to succeed among the members of his own study group, and to solve the perpetual problems of coordinating schedules, increasing gas prices and familial obligations.

Tom’s question had always been “how to develop a consistent group practice without easy access to a KTC center?”  But he soon discovered that through text messaging with the members of his dharma study group at specific times of day, he could coordinate a “virtual meditation session” between group members and friends from Cincinnati to Dayton, and as far away as Singapore.

Here’s how the Virtual Sangha works: Every morning, at an agreed-upon time, Tom sends out a group text message to his dharma friends, announcing the start of their morning practice session.  Then, in their homes – wherever they are – his dharma friends hear the “ding” of his text message and start doing whatever practice they are committed to doing each day.

Some are doing shamatha, or quiet sitting meditation; others are doing their Mahamudra preliminaries, called Ngondro; still others are practicing visualization and mantra meditation (also called “deity” meditation).

About 45 to 60 minutes later, Tom sends out another text message to end the meditation session. His Virtual Sangha session – involving anywhere from one to six people around the world – is completed

As I spoke with Tom about this amazing development in his meditation community I wondered if he had any trouble maintaining the integrity of the practice since there were, in several cases, many miles separating the group members.  Tom answered to the contrary, saying, “if the motivation and intention are the same, technology very much supports the act of visualization, which is integral to practices such as Ngöndro.”

1415862_10152419040069816_478334397_n-2For example, the simple “ding” of a text message sent to a group who are expecting it at a specific time of day for the sake of practice allows an accessibility to the idea, and even the feeling, of others practicing with you – a feeling that may not be so readily available to dharma students who struggle with such a practice.

Also, Tom says, “because of the agreement on a practice time among the members of the virtual Sangha, one can feel motivation and encouragement whether or not all members are practicing.  The sound and reception of the message provides a sense of connection between those who are not physically near one another.”

As Tom described the chiming sound of the message, it was apparent that this notification, on whatever device a member of the virtual Sangha is using, serves as a cue, much like a singing bowl during a formal group meditation in a physical center.

While Tom admits that there are similar challenges to coordinating a virtual Sangha as there are to coordinating members of a traditional Sangha, he expresses the great benefit and inspiration the virtual Sangha has had on his keeping a daily practice.  While he always wished he could be closer to a KTC center, the virtual Sangha has allowed Tom to establish connections with other people of the Buddhist community that he may not have had the opportunity of meeting in a center.

1468351_10152411054064816_220163639_oTom said other meditators have expressed an interest in his virtual Sangha – even meditators who do not necessarily consider themselves to be Buddhist. “Because we focus more on meditation than book study, the virtual Sangha is open to everyone,” Tom said.  “Each person of the Sangha practices from his or her own home, which allows for each practitioner to have an open meditation that focuses on his or her preferred practice, from shamatha meditation to deity meditation to Ngöndro, and so on.  This open practice also allows a special connection to occur between those members who practice on different levels and in different styles.”

My conversation with Tom was enlightening as to the possibilities that technology can afford those who would benefit from the spiritual support of Sangha, but whose lives can be too hectic at times to be as involved in a traditional Sangha.

It seemed from our talk that a virtual Sangha can be as beneficial on as many levels as a traditional Sangha can be for practitioners in a Buddhist community.  Currently, Tom’s virtual Sangha has steady participation from about six members, though as with a traditional Sangha, this number fluctuates.

Tom’s virtual Sangha is always open to new members.  If you are interested in joining his group, send an email to with your phone number and he will add you to the list of members that receive meditation notifications.

Now, years into practicing with a virtual Sangha, Tom wishes he would have known how simple it was going to be.  “I wake up in the morning when my alarm goes off, I don’t have to get ready and drive for miles to practice with my Sangha, but only set up my altar, send a message that says ‘I’m here,’ and start my practice.”


How to Form Your Own Virtual Sangha

  • Establish a leader and a fallback leader—Tom is the leader of his virtual sangha, and his fallback leader is his friend Carol.  The role of the leader is to send the text messages that begin and end the meditation session.  The fallback leader will assume these duties in the event that the leader is unavailable during the set meditation time.
  • Communicate—spread the word about your virtual sangha among members of your traditional sangha with the instruction to send word to those members who exist on the fringe of the community for whatever reason (distance, time conflicts, familial obligations, work, etc.).
  • Don’t be discouraged—keep going.  The virtual sangha is extremely beneficial in keeping a steady practice—it is always easier if you know that someone is doing it with you, only in his or her space and you in yours.

All photos from Tom Studer’s Facebook page.535457_10151748952064816_1950288556_n

Facing Death (and Life!) without Fear: Training in Caring, Compassion and Pure Rebirth. Programs on Death and Dying at KTD, Spring 2014

facingdeathanddyingheader_edited-1After his awakening, the Buddha taught a path of Freedom from Fear; he taught about Suffering and its Causes, its Cessation and the Path to its solution, and left behind a wealth of practices for us to engage in to reduce our fears and increase love, compassion and wisdom.
Among all fears, fear of death itself is most powerful. So much about death is unpredictable: the time, the place, the manner of death is unknown to us, and as a result, we carry an inner dread that is sometimes difficult to shake.
In fact, if unresolved, the fear of death can arise suddenly in other, unexpected forms: fear of sickness, fear of loss, fear of change. These fears can “freeze” us emotionally and spiritually, and prevent us from living our lives in harmony and love.
This Spring, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra is offering a suite of practices and retreats aimed at pacifying the Fear of Life and Death, using both ancient Tibetan Buddhist practices and modern pastoral care techniques to settle our minds and allow us to live unencumbered by our fears.
These three practice and study weekends will give all practitioners of all levels the tools necessary to face change in their lives, and to be sources of strength for other people going through the tumult of loss and change.
Feb. 28-March 5, 2014: Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche Teaches and Leads Amitabha Practice Retreat at KTD
amitabhaposterfinalThe Buddha taught that we are “reborn” in every moment in accordance with what we do with our minds. If we think of anger and hatred, we are “reborn” in states of suffering; if we dwell on love and compassion and wisdom, we are “reborn” in higher states of happiness.
Among the most powerful teachings given by the Buddha were the practices of the Pure Land of Amitabha, a buddha who manifested a pure realm free from suffering where any being could be reborn after death and practice their dharma without hindrance. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche will teach the Sadhana (chant practice) of the Pure Realm of Sukhavati, and prepare students for studying P’owa (the transference of consciousness at death) later in 2014.
March 14-16, Lama Tashi Dondup will teach “Death and Our Journey Through the Bardo” at KTD
deathandourjourneythroughthebardo_edited-1According to the teachings, we all possess the wisdoms and qualities of awakening at the present moment, but they are obscured by five kinds of mental affliction. Lama Tashi Dondup will teach about the Five Buddha families, and how our mental afflictions can be dispelled – both during this life and at the time of death – by knowing and connecting with the Five Buddha families.
March 21-23, Lama Kathy Wesley and Lama Repa Dorje Odzer will teach “Compassion at the Time of Illness and Death” at KTD 
compassionatthetimeofillnessanddeathposterBuilding upon the classic teachings about the stages of illness and death, Lama Kathy and Lama Repa Dorje will explain practical steps we can take even now to steep ourselves in love and compassion as a method for overcoming fear and entering into change with confidence. They also will teach methods of helping loved ones at the time of death, using Buddhist pastoral care techniques taught by contemporary Tibetan Buddhist masters.
In addition, dharma students can learn about Karma and Rebirth at the end of March, when Lama Zopa Tarchin teaches on these topics March 28-30.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche Suggests: The 2014 Stupa Pilgrimage Story by Lama Kathy Wesley

KTDstupapilgrimageheaderToday, I’m writing to let you know the story behind the 2014 “East Coast Edition” of the KTD Stupa Pilgrimage.

Some of you may remember hearing about our 1st Annual KTD Stupa Pilgrimage in June, 2013. During that trip, 22 people from all over the United States traveled by pilgrimage bus to seven different Buddhist relic monuments (called “stupa” or “choten”) throughout the Southwestern US.


The 2013 Stupa Pilgrimage

As I began planning the 2014 trip, I asked our pilgrimage’s spiritual guide, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, for advice about where to go and what to do. Surprisingly, he gave me this sheepish look and said, “would it be all right if you did the pilgrimage on the East Coast next year?”

To hear my beloved 90-year-old guru ask *me* if I minded moving the 2014 pilgrimage East was humbling – to say the least. “Of course!” I answered. “Tell me what you’d like for us to see.”

Then, he outlined a pilgrimage – much the same way he outlined the 2013 pilgrimage – that would have us “headquartered” at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra for three nights, and would include 12 stupas – 12! – at four different dharma centers in upstate New York.

As I considered Khenpo Rinpoche’s words, it all made perfect sense. For years, Khenpo Rinpoche has been calling Karma Triyana Dharmachakra “the Bodhgaya of America,” relating KTD with the sacred place in India where the historical Buddha, Lord Shakyamuni, attained his enlightenment. KTD is the place where His Holiness the 16th Karmapa blessed the land for his “seat” in North America; it’s where we built that seat, with its magnificent Main Shrine Room housing the 11-foot-tall Buddha image that is one of the finest on the continent; it’s where His Holiness the 17th Karmapa came and blessed his students, and said he felt as though he had come “home” again.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and Lama Kathy Wesley; photo by Tanya Bissig-Schroeder

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and Lama Kathy Wesley; photo by Tanya Bissig-Schroeder

So, to house the pilgrims at the chief pilgrimage spot in America, and lead our tour from there was fitting, and inspiring to consider.

Responding to Khenpo Rinpoche’s advice, I quickly contacted the dharma centers he’d suggested for our pilgrimage, and got enthusiastic responses. The centers wanted us to come, and were willing to do whatever we needed to make that happen. (See itinerary below)

We were able to arrange our pilgrimage using some of the suggestions folks had asked for after our last trip.

We plan to have shorter drives between stupas, as well as planning 3-hours visits at each stupa, so we can concentrate on what Khenpo Rinpoche said was the main purpose of pilgrimage – to accumulate merit through making offerings, reciting aspirations, and performing circumambulation; and to accumulate wisdom through practicing meditation.

We also will have an opportunity to meet several lamas, and will have two sessions to create stupa-shaped tsa-tsas (small reliquaries) to take home.

Now we have announced the pilgrimage, inviting everyone to come along.

It would be lovely to have you along; hope to see you there!

May we dedicate this pilgrimage to the long lives of our teachers, the longevity of His Holiness Karmapa’s dharma in America, and our own growing appreciation for (and practice of!) the dharma. May all beings benefit!

– Lama Kathy Wesley

So, here’s a look at the schedule for KTD Stupa Pilgrimage 2014, East Coast Edition:  


Special stupa in KTD Shrine Room

Thursday, May 15: Arrival Day Arrive by air at Albany; stay at airport hotel that night. (Some folks may wish to fly into other airports; they will have to arrange their own transportation to KTD. And still others will want to drive directly to KTD.)
That evening, two orientations will be held: one at the Albany airport hotel, and one at KTD.
Kagyu Thubten Choling

Stupa at Kagyu Thubten Choling

Friday, May 16: Day One

Morning: 28-passenger bus (similar to our bus last year) will pick up pilgrims in Albany and bring them to KTD. Once they arrive, there will be teachings at KTD, followed by prayers, meditation and circumambulation.

After lunch, pilgrims will go to Wappingers Falls NY to Kagyu Thubten Choling, where they will spend 3 hours visiting their stupa overlooking the Hudson River. (This will be a stupa similar to the one in Questa, where one can meditate inside the stupa.)

Stupa House at Karme Ling

Stupa house at Karme Ling

Saturday, May 17: Day Two

Morning: We go to Karme Ling Three-Year Retreat Center.

We circumambulate the two small stupas there, visit the 5-Buddha Family Shrine, and (hopefully!) see Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, and have lunch.


Padma Samye Ling, near Karme Ling

Afternoon: We go to Padma Samye Ling, near Karme Ling, where there are 20-foot-tall versions of all *8* of the stupas associated with Buddha’s life.

Sunday, May 18: Day Three 

Making Tsa Tsas; photo by Nathan Tice

Making Tsa Tsas; photo by Nathan Tice

Morning: We visit the stupa at Ogyen Cho Dzong, located about one hour north of KTD, where we make offerings and recite dedications for the tour.
Afternoon: Pilgrims will return to airports (those going to Albany will return on our bus), or remain at KTD (if they wish).

The Gyalwang Karmapa Inspires Environmental Preservation in Bodhgaya

by Yeshe Wangmo

HHKarmapa and Lillian Sum (in the pink top) planting trees in Bodhgaya in 2009

The Gyalwang Karmapa and Lillian Sum (in the pink top) planting trees in Bodhgaya in 2009

This is the second part of my research on the Gyalwang Karmapa’s environmental activism in India, in which I feature Lillian Sum who has been working with the Karmapa in Bodhgaya on various environmental projects since 2008. She is on the Kagyu Monlam working committee and has also set up an independent non-profit organization of her own called Sacred Earth Trust. She was one of the three female devotees of the Gyalwang Karmapa featured in James Gritz’s recent documentary, “Never Give Up.”

Mingyur Rinpoche planting a tree at Tergar in 2009

Mingyur Rinpoche planting a tree at Tergar in 2009

In 2008 Lillian was part of an international group brought together by Ven. Mingyur Rinpoche to design and implement a rooftop garden adjacent to the newly built Karmapa residence on the top floor of Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya. Out of the five people who started the project, Lillian Sum was the only one to last 9 months in the Bodhgaya heat to complete the garden. The Karmapa was delighted with it and requested her to plant trees in Bodhgaya. He then tasked her with a project that stunned her: cleaning up a toxic garbage dump on the road to Tergar. The land that needed clearing was about 60 meters long, 15-feet wide and 12-feet deep; it was completely filled with refuse and plastic debris. His Holiness added, “I will request 500 monks to help you.”

Bodhgaya: where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Also very dirty.

Bodhgaya: where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Also very dirty.

KMC khoryug SET clean up 2011

The Kagyu Monlam Organization, Khoryug, and Sacred Earth Trust joined forces to Clean Up Bodhgaya in 2011

“It was the best and worst thing that had ever happened to me,” Lillian recalls. “I told him that 100 monk helpers should be enough, but that we needed masks, tongs, gloves and rakes. Then we rented a tractor and engaged the local government who were very supportive. There was a huge ditch filled with plastic waste leading to the big dumping site and the whole thing took 11 days to clear. One local road builder lent two tractors, a digger and a dump truck. We had the support of all the tractors in Bodhgaya and at the end we filled the huge hole with 40 truck-loads of soil.” When it was all finished, we put up a sign with the unmistakable command, “PLEASE DO NOT DUMP HERE, by the order of Nagar Panchyat.” (Nagar Panchyat is the local government administration at the village level).

But old habits die hard and it took a bit of effort to keep the locals from dumping again. The freshly cleaned site filled in with virgin soil was hard to resist, “But we had the local teashop guy keeping an eye out,” explained Lillian. In this way it stayed clean for about 2½ years, after which time a local entrepreneur built a shop on the former dump site, which was now fully-rehabilitated land.

After this project was successfully completed, the local people were inspired and requested a grassroots environmental organization. At the same time, Lillian was invited by the Gyalwang Karmapa to join the Kagyu Monlam’s environmental team. The Karmapa advised Lillian that if an environmental non-profit organization was set-up for the local people, she should stay around to manage it. Thus Sacred Earth Trust (S.E.T.) was established in 2009 (

international clean up bodhgaya 2010

International ‘Clean Up Bodhgaya’ 2010

One of the Trust’s main objectives has been to deal with the ubiquitous mounds of plastic refuse littering the landscape around Bodhgaya. This took a great deal of concerted effort to organize. “In January of 2009 we started a campaign to ban plastic and collected over 7,000 signatures,” Lillian recalled. “Our petition was presented to important state and local government officials as well as the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC); and as result, in September 2009, there was a plastic ban within the temple complex, followed by a written agreement by the working committee of the Nagar Panchyat in April 2011.”bag mahabodhi buddha robe 2011

women sewing 3

79 village women made 53,500 bags.

“By then we were working on enforcement of the ban using education as part of the solution for reducing plastic pollution,” Lillian recalled. “Sacred Earth Trust engaged village women to sew cloth bags to replace plastic ones for organizations like the Kagyu Monlam and Nyingma Monlam (to use for tsok), and for local retailers to use for their customers. In the first 3 months, 79 village women made 53,500 bags and since then we have continued to manufacture cloth bags—for Buddhist groups predominantly. Local businesses have also been supportive because the ban on plastic bags has now become the law.”

In terms of educational programs, S.E.T. has a village-based program called Saraswati Project, that focuses on health, hygiene, nutrition, food security, pollution control, and reducing carbon emissions in a domestic environment. Since then, they have been facilitating teacher training for environmental education for youth, village women and university students.

Lillian Sum and colleague at carbon offsetting initiative.

Lillian Sum and colleague at carbon offsetting initiative.

“We go on site to schools and use creative learning techniques to deliver environmental education so that the teachers are inspired to be catalysts for change within the communities,” says Lillian. “We’ve hosted 14-day permaculture design courses for the last two years for international and local participants and have provided a balanced delivery of theory and science combined with practical hands-on knowledge. This provides participants with a good foundation and the confidence to share the information and experience with others after receiving internationally-recognized certification.”

In addition to educational programs, Lillian has plans to build a plastic recycling center in Bodhgaya. This would encourage the locals to collect plastic waste and then transform it through compression into brick-like building blocks to construct an eco-training center. The blocks could also be used to build other structures, such as sanitation facilities in six villages surrounding Bodhgaya.

Environmental Information Table for the monks, 2010

Environmental Information Table for the monks, 2010

Though these projects are focused on the villagers, Lillian has also provided environmental education for the monks during the Kagyu Monlam, introducing zero waste initiatives and teaching the basics of waste segregation, recycling and waste decomposition (in particular the amount of time it takes various forms of waste to decompose). Educational films have been used to help facilitate awareness among the Sangha. In addition, clean-up activities through the streets of Bodhgaya engaged 300 volunteers and were essentially a collaboration between Kagyu Monlam volunteers, Khoryug and Sacred Earth Trust.

Local school children planting trees in Bodhgaya, 2009.

Local school children planting trees in Bodhgaya, 2009.

Lillian has engaged in other activities in Bihar such as planting trees in the Kalachakra grounds, and on village and school properties. She supported Tergar monastery in raising funds to plant over 500 trees at the Gaya airport as part of an exercise in reducing carbon emissions, and has developed various projects through a “Clean & Green Bodhgaya” initiative.


Grey water system.

She has also been involved with the set-up and implementation of a pilot waste water treatment facility built for the Kagyu Monlam, on the Garchen (tent) site. This project was designed in 2012 by the Kagyu Monlam architect, Ven. Chokyi Gyatso, and has been overseen by the Gyalwang Karmapa’s Monlam Committee. Its purpose is to filter both grey and black water runoff generated by kitchen sinks, showers and toilets at the tent site, where thousands of ordained monks and nuns live during the annual Kagyu Monlam.greywater2

Grey water consists of soapy water from kitchen sinks and showers, while black water consists of oil and faeces. The pilot program features two separate facilities to treat both categories of waste water and involves channeling the water through a series of treatments, including constructed wetlands. Six different species of local plants are used to help filter and purify the water: water hyacinth, reeds, elephant ears, wild grass, lotus and iris are planted in a maze-like system for the water to pass through on its way to rehabilitation. The entire process is rather involved, but once the black water is purified, it can be used to water gardens and irrigate the fields. And with the proper treatment process, grey water can be reused for showering and tap water.greywater3

Garbage enzyme.

Garbage enzyme.

The pilot waste water treatment programs set up at the Garchen site are an experiment at this point and this year some kinks have been ironed out for them to work better on a larger-scale. Furthermore, the Garchen is developing into a zero-waste site using kitchen waste, cardboard, and paper for composting. Uncooked vegetables and fruit are collected for making garbage enzymes that are used for maintaining the grey and black water systems. Lillian noted, “During the last Kagyu Monlam we made over 2,400 liters of garbage enzyme for use in the grey and black water systems this year. Garbage enzyme is fermented, uncooked vegetable waste that breaks down bacteria and can be used for a variety of purposes.” Other water management systems implemented this year include swales (a method of directing grey water for recharging the ground water), and redirecting shower water to dilute the black water system before it goes out into the constructed wetlands.



“We’ve also been introducing various practices for maintaining plants in the Garchen area, such as mulching, use of enzymes, and composting,” Lillian added.

All of this serves as a great educational tool and a reminder of the Gyalwang Karmapa’s on-going commitment to sustainable, organic methods of environmental protection and water rehabilitation. The monks and nuns gather here once a year and witness practical solutions that can be replicated in their respective monasteries.

A zero waste workshop with the Tergar monks, 2011.

A zero waste workshop with the Tergar monks, 2011.

Lillian Sum spends 7 to 8 months of the year working on environmental projects on location in Bodhgaya, all of it on a volunteer basis. She has a diverse background and began her community development work as an artist/designer. Her postgraduate work involved extensive training in advanced environmental and energy studies and environmental architectural design. Since 1996 she has worked on sustainability projects using art, science and technology to deliver environmental education for various community groups in the UK, USA, Mexico, Nepal, Sikkim, Hong Kong, in other regions of India and currently is focused on Bodhgaya and its surrounding villages.

For more information on her work visit:

And check out this short film about her activities on site in Bodhgaya:

A Rain of Blessing from the Copper Coloured Mountain: “The 17th Karmapa is not an emanation of Guru Rinpoche. He is Guru Rinpoche. “

“The 17th Karmapa is not an emanation of Guru Rinpoche. He is Guru Rinpoche.“ — Tai Situ Rinpoche, in a private  interview


The Golden Procession of Guru Rinpoche, with his eight emanations, two consorts, ministers and warriors and the rest of his entourage is always the piece de resistance of this grand Vajra Lama Dance. The thangka was lent to the Kagyu Monlam by His Eminence Tai Situ.

The Vajra Lama Dance staged on the 10th January, 2014 at the Monlam Pavilion in Bodhgaya was in many ways a parallel historical event to the dramatic opening scenario which established Buddhism in 8th century Tibet.


What lies beneath: His Holiness Karmapa, wearing the Guru Rinpoche costume, holding an antique statue Guru Rinpoche underneath.

The great Indian tantrika known throughout the Himalayas as Guru Rinpoche or the precious Guru  was invited to Tibet by the reigning King, Trisong Deutsen, to dispel the obstacles to the establishment of Samye, the first monastery in Tibet.

The Abbot, Shantarakshita, could not accomplish it, because he was a scholar whose knowledge was sutra based. Nor could all the wealth and power of the great King. It needed a tantric mahasiddha to transform the energy.

There were obstacles from the indigenous shamanistic religion, and obstacles from the lha or mountain gods, as well as malevolent spirits or demons.

The Lotus-born Padmasambhava was the great tamer of beings. To prepare the ground for Samye  - the place of the inconceivable – he performed a magnificent Cham or Lama Dance.

According to the Fifth Dalai Lama, Padmasambhava performed a Vajrakilaya dance  and the rite of ‘thread cross’ or (Tib) namkha to assist the King and Abbot.  His tantric dance cleared away all the obstacles, enabling the monastery to be built in 767. He also tamed the local spirit protector, Pehar Gyalpo, and bound him by oath to become the head of the entire hierarchy of Buddhist protective spirits.


”Male and female,” Guru Rinpoche replied to his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, ”there is no difference.”

Guru Rinpoche’s activity in Tibet also cleared the ground for women to be honoured as fully as men, possessing an even greater capacity to attain enlightenment.  ”Male and female,” he replied to his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, ”there is no difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment, a woman’s body is better.”

Together with Yeshe Tsogyal, he concealed both earth and mind “terma,” or treasures. An imbalance of the elements, he predicted,  would bring about a degenerate age with natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, and drought, war and violence, affecting the minds of practitioners. The dharma would become only words written down in texts, subject to corruption. To ensure renewal the dharma at those times, Guru Rinpoche hid treasures – texts, empowered ritual objects, and visions –  into the mind stream of his 25 heart disciples to be revealed at the right time by their reincarnations.


The Cham or Vajra Lama Dance

The ritual practice of Lama Sangdu is such a terma treasure, and one of the most important.  Lama Sangdu means “embodiment of the master’s secrets,” and it is a sadhana of the Guru’s heart. The Cham or Vajra Lama Dance is the heart of the Lama Sangdu ritual.

The entire ritual has held a special place in the Karmapa lineage for the past 800 years, ever since it was revealed by the pre-eminent treasure revealer, Guru Chowang, a speech emanation of King Trisong Deutsen – one of the 25 heart disciples of Guru Rinpoche.  Guru Chowang  visited  the Copper Coloured Mountain of Padmasambhava in a pure vision and saw the dakas and dakinis dancing; later he turned his vision into an extraordinary Vajra Lama Dance. Guru Chowang (born in 1212) offered his treasure to the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, who was the “terdak,” or designated rightful owner of the terma.

The following century the fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa, predicted that the Kagyu lineage would nearly come to an end between the 16th and 17th Karmapas.  He predicted that the “demon,” a samaya breaker, would be destroyed by a heart emanation of Padmasambhava.

20140110_N58A5671ok_sAt the time of the 17th Karmapa’s birth there were clear signs from Guru Rinpoche.  His mother dreamed of 3 white cranes; one was holding a letter with beautiful golden writing and when asked who had sent them, they replied it was Guru Rinpoche.  As a child he knew the 7- line prayer of Guru Rinpoche without being taught and recited it to clear obstacles and create favourable circumstances.  When a forest fire was threatening their village, the Karmapa recited the prayer and blew the fire into another direction.

In conclusion, we have a Lama Vajra Dance coming directly from Guru Rinpoche,  performed by the Karmapa – known to be the same as Guru Rinpoche -  at a time of great obstacles for the Kagyu Lineage –  on the tenth day of the month, when the precious Guru said he would appear in person to those with faith. This was indeed an auspicious alignment.  In parallel with the conditions that prevailed in 8th century Tibet, one could expect something to happen.

The queues began at 2 am and by 4 am had snaked half a kilometre across the Monlam field. Those who arrived at 5 am thought they would not get into the Pavilion which seats 10,000, but no one was turned away.20140110__MG_0220_s

20140110_N58A5519ok_s copyThe stage was set with a 30-foot high thangka of Guru Rinpoche, surrounded by his eight manifestations and two consorts, on loan from the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche whose image was portrayed under that of Guru Rinpoche. On the two sides of the aisles leading to the stage, 12 -foot high thangkas of the Karmapa lineage were hanging like sentinels guarding the mandala.

Just by seeing the Karmapa perform the Lama dance, one can attain the vajra body. Gyaltsap Rinpoche

Before the performance begins, the dancers line up to receive the Karmapa’s  blessing, a reminder  of the sacredness of this live re-enactment of the vision from the Copper Coloured Mountain. He wears the gold encrusted brocade kept for special occasions under his maroon robe and puts on the black Activity Crown. The monks prostrate to the shrine and the giant thangka of Guru Rinpoche as they leave.20140110_DSC_0337ok_s


His Holiness Karmapa dances the lead role wearing an enormous melong or mirror, an accoutrement of the fully realized mahasiddha.

In the grand opening dance, called Serkhyem, or golden offering, twenty- one monks from Rumtek  accompany the Karmapa, all wearing conical black hats adorned with the Kalachakra seed syllable. They move slowly, deliberately  in the perfectly synchronized rhythm that accompanies a royal procession.  Karmapa dances the lead role wearing an enormous melong or mirror, an accoutrement of the fully realized mahasiddha. First he holds a kapala in one hand and a phurba in the other; then he holds a serkhyem aloft, and tosses the blessed nectar upwards into the air, offering it to the lamas and yidams, protectors  and local deities as the dancers circle in magnificent black brocades each holding serkhyem.  The deep slow drumbeat is punctuated with cymbals and a guttural sound from the chant master like a hiccup pulses through the pavilion. A gold parasol is held aloft at centre stage while the black hat dancers step solemnly in glistening brocades that derive from centuries old Tibetan designs, creating a visual masterpiece.

20140110_DSC_0313ok_sIn the Karmapa’s introduction to the sacred performance he reminded the audience that the nature of all phenomena is the union of appearance and emptiness:


… (His Holiness) holds a serkhyem aloft, and tosses the blessed nectar upwards into the air, offering it to the lamas and yidams, protectors and local deities…

This sacred lama dance with such a long history and profound meaning is totally unlike any kind of ordinary or mundane dance. The essence of the vajra dance is the recognition of the nature of all phenomena as the union of appearance and emptiness. The practitioners of the vajra dance use their own body, speech and mind not as ordinary body, speech and mind but those of the deity, and the dance becomes a way to express this. Therefore when a realised practitioner performs the lama dance they can cause the blessings of the body, speech and mind of the deities to actually enter the body, speech and mind of the viewers.

Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche both lead the third dance, an invocation to bless the phenomenal world and transform it into the Copper Coloured Mountain.

Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche both lead the third dance, an invocation to bless the phenomenal world and transform it into the Copper Coloured Mountain.

Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche both lead the third dance, an invocation to bless the phenomenal world and transform it into the Copper Coloured Mountain. They appear in resplendent gold and blue costumes respectively, playing the bell and damaru while they dance.  From the back of the stage the Karmapa stands like a theatre director, intensely focused, as if guiding every move that the young Jamgon Kongtrul makes.

When they stand facing the shrine and the thangka, while chanting prayers to invoke the deities, a palpable feeling of blessing arises as in a sadhana when the wisdom deities merge with the imagined deities. Then the dancers circulate around the stage playing damarus and bells; the clack of drum and and tinkle of bell resonate in the Pavilion temple. Their costumes are like a sumptuous feast prepared in gold, red, blue, green, and white.  Lacey nets cover the brocade like a frontispiece. Monks with the fringed yellow hats known as tsesha come onstage and play horns.

The moment the troupe of dancers and monks exit, there is an explosion on the roof of the Pavilion like horses’ hooves clattering on metal. Not an ordinary rainstorm with a drop by drop preparation, but a deluge pouring from the sky. Ten thousand faces look upward in awe and wonder at the rain of blessings from the Copper Coloured Mountain.  Some are joyful and radiant, others weep with devotion.  Many are  inspired to prostrate to the shrine.  It is certain that Guru Rinpoche has replied with the thunderous applause of celestial gods and goddesses. It leaves an indelible impression beyond words.


About a half an hour later during an aptly named dance called Wrathful Splendour, while  21 dancers hold swords,  Guru Rinpoche  gathers the forms of the five poisons into his heart and transforms their remains into wisdom nectar.  The sun appears lighting up the gold dragons emblazoned on black brocade, bedazzling the eye. The play of phenomena merges with the dance of appearance and emptiness.

The Golden Procession of Guru Rinpoche, with his eight emanations, two consorts, ministers and warriors and the rest of his entourage is always the piece de resistance of this grand Vajra Lama Dance. But on this occasion it was not only an elaborate spectacle but an historic precedent. It was the first time that women have been allowed to perform in a Cham dance, or even allowed to be onstage with the monks.

The sound of their voices, clear and lucid like water drops, was a sound never heard before in any monastic Cham. Dancing with bell and damaru in front of the gigantic golden masked figure of Guru Rinpoche, their steps placed delicately like footprints on water, we were suddenly at the Copper Coloured Mountain with the celestial dakinis.

The sound of their voices, clear and lucid like water drops, was a sound never heard before in any monastic Cham.

The sound of their voices, clear and lucid like water drops, was a sound never heard before in any monastic Cham. Dancing with bell and damaru in front of the gigantic golden masked figure of Guru Rinpoche, their steps placed delicately like footprints on water, we were suddenly at the Copper Coloured Mountain with the celestial dakinis.

20140110__MG_5867_sIt must have delighted the great Guru. The massive golden mask of the Guru crowned with a parasol and supported by several attendants because of its great weight, was not a hollow crown. Inside the golden mask of the Precious Guru is the human form of the Precious Guru, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the Gyalwang Karmapa. His eyes appear at the level of the Guru’s skull-cup as he supports the weight of the hollowed image on his shoulders while seated on the throne. No one can see this, but in his hands he is holding a precious antique statue of Guru Rinpoche.


– N. Levine, © Kagyu Monlam

N. Levine’s recent book about the 16th Karmapa is now available at Namse Bangzo Bookstore: Miraculous 16th Karmapa: Incredible Encounters with the Black Crown Buddha

The Gyalwang Karmapa Performs in the Tsechu Lama Dance

The Kagyu Monlam Slideshows

Click on the thumbnails below to see each photo properly. They are wonderful!

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