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The sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpei Dorje (August 14, 1924–November 5, 1981) (Wylie Rang 'byung rig pa'i rdo rje) was spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He was born in Denkhok in the Dergémarker district of Kham (Eastern Tibet), near the Yangtze Rivermarker.


Jampal Tsultrim, the fifteenth Karmapa's personal attendant, had been entrusted by him with a prediction letter concerning the details of the incarnation of the 16th Karmapa. Certain details were clarified by the 2nd Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, the 11th Tai Situ Rinpoche and the 2nd Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, which helped to successfully locate Rangjung Rigpe Dorje.

He was taken to Palpung Monasterymarker where Situ Pema Wangchok gave him ordination, the Bodhisattva vows and many teachings. Beru Khyentse Lodro Miza Pampa'i Gocha taught him the tantras. Bo Kangkar Rinpoche taught him the sutras. Jamgon Palden Kyentse Oser taught him Mahamudra and the 6 Yogas of Naropa. He regarded Situ Pema Wangchok and Jamgon Palden Kyentse Oser as his main teachers.

In 1931, at the age of seven, he performed his first Black Crown ceremony. Thousands were witness to this amazing event. It was said that a rain of flowers fell and the sky was filled with rainbows. Even while still very young, the great power of the 16th Karmapa became widely known. It was recorded that he took his attendant's sword and tied it in a knot. He received his hair cutting ceremony at age thirteen from Thubten Gyatso, 13th Dalai Lama.

During his education he received all the Kagyu transmissions and was also taught by the Sakya Trizin for many years. In the beginning of the 1940 he went into retreat and in 1947 started a pilgrimage to India together with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Rangjung continued his education with the 10th Mindrolling Trichen of the Nyingma School and it was concluded with the Kalachakra initiation of the Gelugpa School. Rangjung had therefore received all the major teachings of all the major Tibetan Buddhist schools.

The 16th Karmapa continued his predecessor's activities, travelling and teaching throughout Tibet, Bhutanmarker, Nepalmarker, Sikkimmarker, Indiamarker and parts of Chinamarker. His activity also included locating the rebirths of high reincarnate lamas through his meditation.

The Escape from Tibet

Political circumstances altered Tibet radically with the 1950 takeover by the Chinese. Karmapa, along with the Dalai Lama, government officials and other high lamas attended talks in Beijing to negotiate a settlement, which succeeded for a while, but in 1959 the Chinese government insisted on land reform and the conflict with the lamas who owned a lot of land accelerated.

In February of that year, Karmapa took 160 students from Tsurphu Monasterymarker and proceeded overland to Bhutanmarker, taking the lineage's most sacred treasures and relics with them. Diamondway Buddhism Biography 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. (Retrieved: September 16, 2006)

Tashi Namgyal, the King of Sikkimmarker, offered land to the Karmapa near the site where the 14th Karmapa had established a monastery. It was here that his new seat, Rumtek Monasterymarker was built in 1966. The traditional seat of the Karmapa, Tsurphu Monasterymarker, still exists, but the number of monks is restricted. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2002. (Retrieved: September 16, 2006)

Focusing on the Western World

In the beginning of the 1970s the Karmapa made the predication that Tibet would have a hard struggle gaining independence and even if it did, it would not allow the refugees to return. Rumtekmarker would not be a good place either, and although Sikkimmarker and Bhutanmarker are still stable, they can deteriorate as well. However the Western world will embrace Buddhism. And after that predication he send Lama Gendün to Europe.

In 1974 he embarked on his first world tour, travelling to Europe, Canadamarker and the United Statesmarker, giving several Black Crown ceremonies, and an audience was granted by Pope Paul VI. In 1976-77 he began a more exhaustive tour, giving extensive teachings and empowerments and visiting nearly every major city in Europe.

The sixteenth Karmapa helped foster the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. He established Dharma centers and monasteries in various places around the world in order to protect, preserve, and spread the Buddha's teachings. As part of an initiative by the Tibetan government-in-exile to consolidate the organizations of Tibetan Buddhism, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje became the first formal head of the Kagyu School, although the earlier Karmapas had long been considered the most prestigious and authoritative lamas of that school.

Karmapa's death

In 1980-81 the Karmapa began his last world tour, giving teachings, interviews and empowerments in South East Asia, Greece, England and the United States. Rangjung Rigpei Dorjé died on November 5, 1981 in the United Statesmarker in a hospital in Zion, Illinoismarker. Doctors and nurses at the hospital remarked on his kindness and how he seemed more concerned with their welfare than his own. One doctor was also struck by the Karmapa's refusal of pain medication and the absence of any signs of feeling the profound pain that most patients in his condition report. Upon his death, against hospital procedure but in keeping with Tibetan tradition and with special permission from the State of Illinois, his body was left in the hospital for three days and his heart remained warm during this time. Chief of staff Radulfo Sanchez had no medical explanation for this.

During the seven weeks between his death and his cremation, the Karmapa's body spontaneously shrank to the size of a small child. He was cremated in Rumtek. His two dogs died on the day of his cremation even though they were healthy. During the cremation a triple circular rainbow appeared above the monastery in a clear blue sky. Many photographs exist of this remarkable phenomenon. While his body burnt, an object rolled from the flames to the edge of the stupa to Lopon Chechu Rinpoche. This object was quickly recovered and proved to be the Karmapa's eyes, tongue and heart. This was taken to indicate that the body, speech and mind have come together to be saved as relics for the future and is common in only the highest of accomplished Buddhist yogis - the exact same thing is said to have occurred during the cremation of Gampopa and the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.


The simple presence of Karmapa would create a profound and lasting blessing on all people coming into contact with him. He himself said that a Buddha should be known by his laugh and it was said that when Karmapa laughed, which he did all the time, one would hear him several houses away.

He also demonstrated a complete ability to communicate with animals, e.g., at a course in Europe, a large raven tapped on the window where Karmapa was teaching. When let in, the bird flew directly to Karmapa, after which he instructed two people to go to a barn a few miles down the road where two other birds were trapped and starving. Of course the birds were discovered and rescued. Rangjung Rigpe Dorje had a special fondness for birds and he considered a visit to the local petshop in every city in the world an essential part of his travels.

Rangjung Rigpe Dorje was considered by many to be a living Buddha. Like his predecessors, he was primarily a spiritual figure and therefore not involved in politics. He, instead, made efforts to keep the spiritual traditions of Tibet intact and in this way helped to preserve the identity of Tibet as a unique and individual culture. Spiritually, he is an inspiration to hundreds of thousands of people across the world who meditate on him daily.


  1. Karmapa Thaye Dorje, Het Boeddistische boek van Wijsheid en Liefde, page 76, 9080582352 (Dutch translation).
  2. 16th Karmapa, The Lion's Roar (DVD), link
  3. Lama Ole Nydahl, Tibets geheimen voorbij, page 176, 908058231X (Dutch translation)
  4. Karmapa Thaye Dorje, Het Boeddhistische boek van Wijsheid van Liefde, page 46, 9080582352 (Dutch translation. original title: Le livre bouddhiste de la sagesse et de l'amour)
  5. Karmapa Thaye Dorje, Het Boeddistische boek van Wijsheid en Liefde, page 108, 9080582352 (Dutch translation)
  6. Lama Ole Nydahl, Tibets geheimen voorbij, page 179, 908058231X (Dutch translation)
  7. Lama Ole Nydahl, Tibets geheimen voorbij, page 116, 908058231X (Dutch translation)

Other sources used:
  • Kagyu Life International Volume 3 'A Brief History of the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Tibet' by Topga Yugyal Rinpoche
  • Buddhism Today Volume 2 1996 'The Karmapas of Tibet' By Brooke Webb
  • Buddhism Today Issue 15 2005 Volume 1 'The Golden kagyu Garland' By Bruce Tawer
  • 'Riding the Tiger' by Ole Nydahl
  • 'Entering the Diamond Way' by Ole Nydahl

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