Today was an historic occasion in the history of the Karma Kamtsang. For the first time, monasteries, nunneries, dharma centres and individuals worldwide were able to join together through Zoom and over the internet to celebrate the Karmapa’s birthday according to the Tibetan calendar, that is the First day of the Fifth Month.
Previously, during the Special Kagyu Monlam in February 2022, the Gyalwang Karmapa had expressed his hope that in future, by utilising the facilities of modern technology, all the monasteries and nunneries of the Karma Kamtsang would be able to unite to celebrate important anniversaries such as the founding fathers and great masters of the lineage. He also suggested that such anniversaries should be celebrated according to the Tibetan calendar. Today this hope became reality.
The programme began at 8.30am Indian time. For those participating in the Americas, it was late at night on the 29th June, whereas in Europe it was in the early hours of the morning, and in China and Eastern Asia it was lunchtime.
The celebration was in two parts. The first part was a traditional long-life mandala offering. It began with the recitation of prayers—Refuge, the Four Immeasurables, the Seven Branches, the 100 Syllable Mantra and so forth— followed by the ku-sung-thuk mandala offering itself, performed individually by each institution. Viewers could watch on screen as the various monastic institutions and dharma centres participating over Zoom made their mandala offerings. Later, long lines of monks, nuns and laypeople could be seen offering white katas to images of the Karmapa.
Then came the tea offering and tea, the rice offering with special celebratory sweet rice, and finally the birthday cake offering. As everyone enjoyed their cake, the Karmapa gave a short talk.
He began by welcoming everyone, particularly “the Regent of the Karmapas, Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, as well as Kyabje Zurmang Rinpoche and Kyabje Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche” and “likewise all the teachers and spiritual friends, all the members of the sangha, from all the Tibetan tradition monasteries, as well as all my dharma friends from East and West. I should like to send my good wishes to all of you who are listening over the internet and thank you for listening today.”
The Karmapa explained why the date of the birthday celebration had been changed.
“This year we have changed the celebration of my birthday. We used to celebrate it on the 26th June, but this year we are taking the Tibetan calendar as the basis and celebrating it on the first day of the Fifth Tibetan month. This is the correct date; my parents and relatives all say that this is the unmistaken day,” he explained. “In the past, when I was at Tsurphu monastery in Tibet, we used to have the celebrations on the first day of the Fifth Tibetan month and that is the tradition that has continued to the present.”
The Karmapa emphasised that everyone should consider the Tibetan calendar as important, and he had taken the step to prioritise its use this year.
Reflecting on the meaning of his birthday at a personal level, he expressed his gratitude to his mother and father “who have given me this human body with all the resources I need for practising the dharma. They have given me this great human body.”
This is a day when I need to express gratitude to my parents of course. They didn’t just show the kindness of bearing me physically. They taught me the basic issues of how I should behave, what I should do, and what I should not do. They helped me feel faith in the Three Jewels and compassion for all sentient beings. And I think they had a very strong influence on me in this regard. So, I think the first spiritual friends I have had in this lifetime have been my parents; it’s not just the kindness of giving me this body, it’s the kindness of helping me make this body meaningful. This was extremely kind of them and so, for this reason, I would like to express my gratitude towards my kind parents. I think this is important.
On a more general note, the Karmapa observed that everyone who had entered on the path of Dharma should remember the kindness of their spiritual friends and gurus and feel gratitude towards them. “Being able to see a little of the nature of the dharma primarily comes because of our spiritual friends and gurus, as well as the kindness of all our dharma friends, and so today is a special day when I think it’s important to really remember their kindness as well and be grateful to them.”
His Holiness reflected on his experience so far and his resolute commitment to the Dharma:
As I look back over the first thirty odd years of my life, most of the time has not really turned out in the way I had wished. I have wasted a lot of time, and this naturally happens. I have the thought that in future I need to be more diligent and more devoted to my dharma practice so that it turns out better than it did before and different from how it did before. In future I should like to continue to use all the powers that I have to serve sentient beings and the dharma teachings. This is an unswerving commitment that I have. And not just in this lifetime but from this lifetime through all my future lifetimes, I pray never to be separate from the Dharma and to be able to bring benefit to beings and the teachings. This is a hope that I hold.
The Karmapa then talked about his commitment to return to India and some of the issues involved. He explained how the refugee travel document —called the Yellow Book by Tibetans because of the colour of its cover—limits the freedom of Tibetans to travel abroad. Although he himself had used the Yellow Book, there are many countries that do not recognise it and he was unable to visit them. Furthermore, even when countries accepted the book as a valid travel document, there were problems at borders because officials in charge of customs and immigration failed to recognise it and there were awkward delays and difficulties while they checked its validity.
Given this situation, and because he wished to bring more benefit to Buddhism and the teachings in the future, the Karmapa had decided to acquire a passport from another country. Once he had done this, in compliance with Indian Government regulations, he needed to return the Yellow Book and request a visa. At that time, he was in the USA. He explained all the reasons he needed to change his passport to the Indian Government and said that he wished to return the Yellow Book and request a visa in his new passport. After a great deal of communication and discussion, the issues were still being resolved when the Coronavirus pandemic started, and then it was no longer possible to travel. Now that the coronavirus pandemic had abated somewhat, the Karmapa continued, both the Government of India and the Tibetan Central administration were expressing an interest in when he might return to India. Also, previously, he had not been able to visit Sikkim, but now the State Government of Sikkim were making strenuous efforts to invite him to Sikkim.
Discussions had resumed with the Government of India, and he was hopeful that he would be able to return, though the time was not yet certain. The Karmapa described the importance of India to him personally and the steps being taken to facilitate his return:
I told the Indian Government in the past that I considered India to be very important. For one thing, India is the source of the Buddhist religion, and the place where the Buddha appeared on the earth. It is the source of the Buddhadharma, so India is extremely important. Likewise, for us Tibetans, Gyalwa Rinpoche [His Holiness the Dalai Lama] is there and all the people who came as refugees. The organisational hub of the Tibetan exile community is there, many of our monasteries and nunneries are there, and for the Kagyupa, the main Kagyu monasteries are there, as well as many Rinpoches. So, for myself individually, and generally, India is very important for us… I think it is a very important that I have a good connection with India, and I have stated this in a letter. This is the actual situation but for me to return to India there are a lot of technical issues in terms of applying for a visa. This is an issue we need to consider more carefully, because if we do not make the request properly, I won’t be able to return. Some people might be thinking “He’s spent many years abroad and he’s not going to come back.” But it’s not that I don’t want to come back, I do wish to come, and from the time I was in America , I made requests again and again, and my sister and others have gone to India and engaged in many discussions with the Government of India. So, this is an important situation. Something I thought you should all keep in mind.
The Karmapa now turned his attention to the world situation and commented especially on problems he observed in the Tibetan community. The world situation was changing in many different ways, he commented. First, the Coronavirus pandemic had taken countless lives and caused many other difficulties, including economic loss. Then, the war in Ukraine was creating a strong effect worldwide, particularly in Europe, and making many problems.
In such times, he argued, it was important to have a clear perspective and understanding of what was happening.
He expressed particular concern about the problems and issues which had arisen in the Tibetan exile community over the last few years:
I often think about many different things and think I should say something. These days societies are very easily riled, so whenever I say something I don’t know what effect it will have and who might use it. In a word, I don’t know whether it’s going to be beneficial or turn out badly. It’s not certain…in any case, in Tibetan refugee society we lack the communal idea. It’s a very difficult situation that we are in. I think we should feel disappointed by this, particularly while His Holiness the Dalai Lama is alive. If the situation now is so difficult, what will happen when he is no longer with us? That’s really something we need to think about. There is so much focus on minor situations but the main focus should be on harmony within the Tibetan community and our feeling of acting in unity. This is like our life force and if we lose that, what’s going to happen?
Sometimes I think that Tibetan society is really so difficult. If I have to return to Tibetan society, what’s going to happen? Will I be able to bring any benefit? Or will someone else try to use me? It’s not certain. I often think about that. Likewise, there are many Tibetans who have a strong pure motivation; they must have been very disappointed. Right now, I’m not within Tibetan society, I am looking at it from the outside and I am witnessing many different situations that we never saw before. I think everyone should try to take a wider and broader view about this.
Finally, the talk concluded on a very personal note. Sharing his own previous doubts and fresh commitment, the Karmapa explained how, from the time he was young, he had been unsure of the benefits of living a long life. “Sometimes I got a little bit depressed or sad…there were many different situations and events…and I thought, sometimes, it might be better to die young,” he stated.
However, his perspective had changed, particularly in the last three to five years. Now, he saw a real reason to live for a long time:
If I compare the previous incarnations of the Karmapas, the longest lived was the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, who lived to 84, according to the histories…. There’s hope that I could live to be the longest-lived of all the incarnations, because if I can live for a long time, I think there is a reason, a point to staying alive. The Great 16th Karmapa, passed away in his fifties but if he had been able to live longer, into his eighties, then many of the difficulties and situations in the Karma Kamtsang would probably not have been able to come about.
And from my own perspective, in terms of the qualities of scripture and realisation, the qualities of being learned and venerable, I don’t possess any of them at all, but if I can do a little bit to serve sentient beings and the teachings, I have an enthusiasm for this. And, if I can live for a few years, I think I can bring a little benefit to the teachings in general and to sentient beings…this is my dedication and aspiration, so I would like to ask you all to make the same prayer.
The first part of the programme concluded with aspiration prayers.
After a 30-minute break, the smoke-offering puja —entitled The Smoke Offering Banks of Clouds of Siddhi [Tib. བསང་མཆོད་དངོས་གྲུབ་སྤྲིན་ཕུང་། ] —began.
The 17th Karmapa compiled this smoke-offering puja from texts by Kagyu lamas, especially prayers composed by the 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, and the 15th Karmapa, Khakyab Dorje. The puja began with a self-visualisation, followed by smoke offerings to Bernakchen, Palden Lhamo, Damchen, and the deities of the Karmapa’s birthplace. This latter section for the deities from the Karmapa’s birthplace was newly composed by the Karmapa himself. After prayers for the long-life of the Karmapa, the puja concluded with aspirations and dedications.
The opening prayers and the smoke offering puja were led by the chant masters of Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. Individual monasteries, nunneries and dharma centres had set up shrines for the smoke-offering ritual and could be seen on screen making the necessary ritual offerings during the puja.
The programme concluded with words of thanks from the Karmapa and his warning that everyone take especial care of their health because the Covid-19 pandemic had not yet finished. He was particularly concerned that the older Kagyu leaders, such as Tai Situ Rinpoche, Goshri Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche should protect their health, and revealed that he himself had contracted Covid-19 recently and still felt some after-effects.
The following Kagyu monasteries, nunneries and dharma centres participated over Zoom:
Samtenling Monastery; Karmapa Sewa Samaj Nepal; Hong Kong Kagyu Centers;Thrangu Centre Hong Kong; Tergar Monastery Nepal; Palpung Sherabling; Tilokpur Nunnery; Zurmang Monastery; Palchen Chosling Lachi; Palpung Monastery, Dehradun; Bokar Nunnery; Drubchen Choeling Monastery; Thrangu Tara Abbey; Tana Monastery; Zuri Monastery; Palgne Monastery; Taklung Monastery, Bhutan; Choekhorling Foundation; Vajrayana Karma Center; Sekhar Monastery, Bhutan; Karma Samtenling Nunnery; Nyidey Monastery, Bhutan; Palpung Nunnery; Phodong Monastery; Neynang Pau Monastery; Tergar Monastery, Bodhgaya; Kyegue Dhagmo Chosling; Druk Palmo Cho Ding; Ralang Old Monastery; Bokar Monastery; Neydo Tashi Choling; Bokar Shedra; Benchen Shedra; Tek Chok Ling Nunnery; Pullahari Monastery; Lekshey Ling Nunnery; Lava Shedra; Benchen Monastery; Rumtek Monastery; Ladakh Mahey Monastery; Thrangu Phulahari Monastery; Namo Buddha; Thrangu Shedra ,Varanasi; Taiwan Chayi Center; Samyeling Monastery UK; Sonada Monastery; Rumtek Old Monastery; Tsurphu Labrang; Milarepa Foundation, Bhutan; Garchen House, Bodhgaya; Ringu Tulku; Lekshey Ling, Bhutan; Lekshey Ling, Nepal; Thrangu Monastery, Boudha; Kagyu Center, Indonesia; Thrangu Rinpoche; Gyuto Monastery Dharamshala