The Gyalwa Karmapa Meditates on the Ways of the West at the Founding of a U.s. Buddhist Center
Twelve crimson-robed monks, chanting hypnotically, kneel before a throne. As Tibetan gyanling horns blare, the chunky, beatific man upon it declaims in Tibetan, “The teachings of Buddhism are spreading like the rays of the sun.” The scene is not a Himalayan mountain top but an estate 60 miles north of Manhattan, and on the throne is His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa (in English: “Victorious One” and “Man of Action”). One of the highest-ranking spiritual authorities in Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa is, as his religion teaches, the 16th incarnation of an unbroken line of “Living Buddhas” stretching across eight centuries.
He was in New York to consecrate the site—350 wooded acres donated by shipping magnate C.T. Shen—of a Tibetan-style monastery that will be completed in five years. It will serve as the American center for the Karmapa’s teachings. His message is particularly appropriate for the U.S., he says, because “in spite of your great material proficiency, you suffer from emotional and psychological turbulence.” Nonetheless, the distinguished visitor does not himself seem immune to American preoccupation with size. He says that “this monastery should be the biggest in the world because America has the biggest of everything.”
The Karmapa was born Rangjung Rigpe Dorje in 1924, his nativity forecast by his predecessor. While still in the womb, it is said, the Karmapa recited a mantra and at birth cried, “Mother, Mother, I am going away.” Above his head is a normally invisible “black crown” which an “enlightened” person is said to be able to perceive during a special ceremony. A number of these black crown rites have been held in the U.S.
Having visited this country in 1974, the Karmapa had some familiarity with Western ways when he set off last October from his monastery, Rumtek, in mountainous Sikkim. He settled there after the Communists forced him out of Tibet in 1959, and his 10,000 lamas (or monks) are scattered throughout Asia. On this trip the Karmapa’s retinue, which includes several dozen finches from his aviary in Sikkim, has had a busy social schedule. They were entertained by Sen. Charles Percy in Washington and in Hollywood by actress Elke Sommer (“I asked him why Buddhism was the best religion and he said, ‘It isn’t. It just happens to be my religion’ “) and actor James Coburn (“I taught him to sing Happy Birthday”). Percy met the Karmapa in Sikkim seven years ago; Sommer and Coburn are friends of friends.
Given to earthy snorts and childlike laughter, the Karmapa is overweight and a diabetic. But even while sightseeing at Disneyland, universities, zoos and libraries, he faithfully rises at 4 a.m. for prayer and meditation, often after less than five hours’ sleep. He meditates again in the evening.
The Karmapa says he is “encouraged” by Buddhism’s progress in America. Before he dies he will forecast the appearance of his successor, the 17th incarnation. James Coburn asked him, “Might we have a Western Karmapa next?” Coburn recalls that “he made a face, then smiled and said, ‘not yet.’ ”