Gems for the Guru: Short Stories from Karmapa’s Visit

The visit of His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa to Karma Triyana Dharmachakra is a dream come true for so many of His Holiness’ dharma students in America. They’ve read his books, placed his photos on their shrine, recited his mantra … and then finally were able to encounter him in reality.

During the April 17-20 portion of His Holiness’ visit to KTD, students from all over the country – and the world – converged on the Catskill Mountains to see His Holiness. After receiving a warm welcome at his North American Seat on Friday April 17, His Holiness gave a public lecture on Refuge to a group of 1500 students at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston on Saturday, a Karma Pakshi Empowerment to 1300 at UPAC on Sunday night, and teachings on the Four Dharmas of Gampopa to donors and members at KTD on Sunday and Monday.

Among those visiting, we found some interesting stories and wanted to share them with you. May these small gems of devotion to the guru shine and inspire you!

Photo, Stephanie Colvey


Receiving Refuge: A Timeless Moment

In the giant hall at Ulster Performing Arts, His Holiness Karmapa bestowed the vow of refuge – for both the audience there, and by webcast, an audience of thousands more watching all over the globe.

Fifteen hundred people reciting the Refuge Prayer after His Holiness one line at a time in Sanskrit produced a thunder like the ocean’s roll. All were together in the moment – transported by shared intention to a place of wisdom and compassion. “I thought of the story that Karmapa would in the future become the 6th Buddha, the Buddha Lion’s Roar,” one participant said. “It was as though we were building the auspicious connection to be reborn in that time with him – or maybe, it was happening now.”

Photo of Leesa Chenoweth by Lama Kathy Wesley

 The Guru Seated in Her Heart

Seeing His Holiness on his beautifully gold-leafed throne is a thrill for anyone, but most especially for Leesa Chenoweth. The longtime dharma student and registered nurse from West Virginia is an artist who helped sand and pre-paint the carved wood decorations for the throne before they were gold-leafed by Mr. Li.

“I worked on the [panels] on the stairs [to the throne] – each piece, practically,” she said. “We sanded each and every piece and then covered them with a red enamel paint so they could be gold-leafed.”

The finished product is a majestic and radiant seat fit for a Buddha. But the work did not become real for her until today.

“I sat down and saw his picture wasn’t there,” she said, referring to the large portrait that generally sits on the throne when His Holiness is not in residence. “And I realized the throne was waiting for him, and …” she trails off, tears in her eyes. “To see him sit there – it felt like I was in a dream. I’ve been waiting years for this – I’m so happy.”


Photo of Michael Heaton by Jason Petersen
Photo of Lama Dudjom Dorjee and Michael Heaton, Robert Hansen-Sturm

A Faithful Beard: How One Student Showed His Devotion

Any way you look at it, Michael Heaton has a magnificent beard. It’s a skirt of fine salt-and-pepper gray hair, with enough width and breadth to cover much more than just his chin.

“It definitely gets a reaction,” he says. “Some people say it’s great; other people say, ‘give me a pair of scissors; I want to be the one to make the first cut!’”

But what some may not know is that he grew the beard for spiritual reasons – and not the reasons you might imagine.

Michael has served KTD in several capacities over the last few years. He’s been a shrinekeeper and volunteer meditation instructor for the public; these days he works for the Namse Bangdzo Bookstore, KTD’s bookshop and online dharma materials store.

At Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s 90th birthday celebration, Michael – who had begun growing his beard – was teased by a disciple of the 17th Karmapa. “The devotee said His Holiness Karmapa would really like this sort of beard,” Michael said. “So I decided I would let the beard grow until Karmapa returned to KTD.”

That was in 2012. His Holiness had just visited in July 2011, so it seemed like not such a long time to wait.

However, circumstances made Michael wait until April 2015. In beard years, this produced quite an effect.

“It gets in the way sometimes,” he admits. He even began putting it in a sort of a bun – braiding the hair in on itself – to help keep it out of harm’s way.

With Karmapa’s arrival at KTD this past weekend, it was the Moment of Truth for the beard.

“Did Karmapa see it?” he says. “Yes – while he was on a tour of the bookstore.”


“He touched it, and said it was ‘wonderful.’”

Now that it’s spiritual function has been served, the beard could succumb to impermanence after His Holiness departs from KTD. Or not.

“I was looking at the [Tibetan Astrological] calendar for an auspicious hair-cutting day,” Michael said. However, “Once Khenpo Tenkyong saw how much Karmapa liked it, he told me, ‘you have to keep it, now.’”

Lama Choenyi, left, with Lama Karuna Tara

Tiny Blessings: How a Mouse Taught a Dharma Student about Faith

Karmapa’s blessings extend to all beings, and all creatures – from the largest to the smallest.  None, it is said are beyond his compassion.

The truth of this was shown in a little miracle at KTD Monastery – when a little tragedy turned into a pretty big miracle.

Lama Choenyi is a frequent visitor to the torma room at KTD monastery. One of the graduates of Karme Ling monastery, she is an artist who’s talent in painting and sculpture has been put to use to create the beautiful shrine offerings placed on Tibetan shrines. These tormas symbolize the offering of pure food, which is the cause for accumulation of virtuous mind.

Anywhere there is food, there are creatures who enjoy it. One such creature is the mouse. KTD’s torma room has been troubled by visiting mice, and a set of live traps has been sent for them. The traps are actually quite spacious, about the size of a large book, and can contain food and water to sustain the captives until they can be safely released.

On the morning of April 18, Lama Choenyi saw a captive in the small steel box, and wondered if a maintenance person would come to rescue it.

She became busy, and didn’t think about it again until three days later, when she looked into the box and saw that the mouse had died.

“I felt so badly about it,” she said, “because I realized if I had freed the mouse it might have lived.”

But when she looked closer, she saw an amazing sight – the mouse was in a seated position, sitting on its tail with its forelegs and backlegs stretched out in front of it.

“It looked as though the mouse had died in a state of meditation,” she said. He looked peaceful and alive. The remarkable feature – called thukdam – is experienced by advanced meditators at the time of death, and is said to be an expression of spiritual attainment.

But a mouse? And one caught in a small steel cage?

Lama Choenyi gave the small steel box to Lama Karuna Tara to show the discovery to her teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche. He confirmed that yes, the mouse had died in a state of meditation, and was resting in thukdam. Rinpoche suggested to Lama Karuna Tara that she take the mouse to His Holiness Karmapa for his blessing and confirmation.

As Lama Karuna could not find His Holiness, as he was out for a time. When she heard his footsteps on the stairs, she took the box to go out into the hallway. Surprisingly, she saw His Holiness Karmapa, who was walking directly toward Khenpo Rinpoche’s room. She met him at the doorway. She showed him the box-cage and the mouse, and asked whether the mouse was in thukdam. He agreed that the mouse was resting in thukdam and blessed the mouse. He then turned and went back toward his room – as though meeting Lama Karuna had accomplished his intended action.

It was a moment of awe for Lama Karuna. “You don’t have to tell Karmapa; he knows,”  she said.

The mouse was left undisturbed for several hours. After a while, the eyes closed, and the sitting figure began to slump, signaling the end of the thukdam meditation.

Khenpo Rinpoche directed that the mouse be buried in a nice and peaceful place.

The amazing story sent a thrill through the volunteers, and Khenpo Rinpoche’s comment was touching and sweet.

“If a KTD mouse can rest in thukdam [due to the blessing of His Holiness], then no need to mention the people.”

Photo by Lama Sam
Photo by Lama Sam

Gently Falling Blessings 

During His Holiness Karmapa’s visit to KTD and its affiliated Three-Year Retreat Center at Karme Ling in Delhi, NY, the weather provided all four seasons: warm sun, blustery spring, chilly fall, and snowy winter.

A remarkable spring snow fell when His Holiness visited Karme Ling; before he arrived, the snow was falling in a spirited variety of shapes: flowers, dots, circles, and even 5- and 6-pointed stars.

The stars were especially striking; not only were one or two seen on the cloaks and coats of the waiting crowd, but star-shapes by the dozen. This is especially inspiring when one considers that the six-pointed star is sometimes associated with Vajrayana deity practice. All took the unusual snow-shapes as an auspicious reminder that even the Earth responds to the presence of a great spiritual master.

Photo by Lama Sam

Trains, Planes, Automobiles, and Buses – A Pilgrim’s Journey

While her dharma friends were planning their journeys to KTD to see His Holiness Karmapa, Amy Billman of the Hay River Wisconsin Karma Thegsum Choling Center had pretty much given up on the idea.

After all, she was going to be 7,000 miles away – in Himachal Pradesh, India, as Sherabling Monastery, receiving teachings on the “Sacred Dohas of the Enlightened Kagyu Masters” from His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche, a guru of His Holiness Karmapa.

“Last fall I made the plan to go to India, so I didn’t think there was any way I could see His Holiness,” she said. The three weeks she set aside for her trip to India was about the maximum she could take off work, and to try to do more, well, seemed impossible.

But then fate – in the form of a message from dharma friends Patrice and Patrick Woolridge – intervened.

“They wrote to me and asked if I could serve on the safety and security team for His Holiness at KTD,” she said.

The offer was tempting, but she kept thinking of how jet-lagged she would be – and how she would miss the arrival of His Holiness and have to play “catch up” both with her security assignment and her sleep.

“And then the bodhisattva Metka from Slovenia came to me,” she smiled, referring to another dharma friend who was attending the course with her at Sherabling. “She pretty much convinced me – she said, ‘you really ought to get there.’”

Although Amy had seen His Holiness in India several times, Metka insisted that “it would be different to see His Holiness Karmapa on your home soil,” Amy said.

So Amy checked with her family and with the airlines, and made a plan to get to KTD.

“I went from New Delhi to Vienna to Chicago to LaGuardia (New York City), and then took a shuttle to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York,” she said. The bus let her off in Kingston at 1 a.m., and instead of calling a taxi, she walked the challenging Kingston traffic circle at night to get to her hotel.

The next thing she knew she was at KTD, trained in her work and standing guard on the monastery back hallway, helping usher students into interviews and assisting people from the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche to His Holiness himself.

She managed to get tickets to all the events, and was able to experience His Holiness as her friend Metka had said: on her own soil.

And how was it? “Incredible!” she said.


3 thoughts on “Gems for the Guru: Short Stories from Karmapa’s Visit

  1. Having to meet His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa is quite wonderful.
    I have been wanting to meet him sooner or later.
    And after reading this article, I wanted to meet even sooner.

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