One of the things I bought on this trip is an absolutely beautiful book, Karmapa: 900 Years, published this year by the 2010 Karmapa 900 Organizing Committee. The book has a two-page spread (pp. 78-79) about “Life in the Great Encampment of the Karmapas” which explains that:
For 300 years, the Gyalwang Karmapas moved freely across the wide open spaces of Tibet, accompanied by a vast mobile practice community known as the ‘Great Encampment of the Karmapas’ or Karme Garchen. While they did visit major Karma Kagyu monastic seats along the way, the Fourth through the Ninth Karmapas spent the majority of their adult lives on the move, traveling to wherever they saw opportunities to be of benefit.
This unique institution of the Great Encampment allowed the Karmapas to move or stay put at will, setting up camp when conditions were right and continuing on when they were not. Yet unlike an ordinary camp, the determining factor was not what the location offered to those camping. Rather, it was what the camp could offer to the location, for the Great Encampment was effectively a vast means of reaching out to offer the Dharma in whatever place was then most receptive to it.
I was struck by this last sentence, especially when I remembered the photo I had seen earlier in the week of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) and His Holiness Karmapa (HHK) in front of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Hopefully at least a few of our elected officials were receptive to the blessings that I am fairly certain HHDL and HHK were beaming in their direction.
It felt like an encampment at KTD, with close to 1000 people from all over the United States and, most likely, all over the world—all crowded under one huge tent that was set up in the courtyard.
I was thrilled to be able to meet and chat for just a couple of minutes with Lama Tsultrim Allione, whose book Women of Wisdom helped fan my early interest in Machik Labdron; within just the past few years, Lama Tsultrim has been recognized as an emanation of Machik. Since Lama Tsultrim’s refuge lama was the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, I sensed that she was delighted to be reunited with Karmapa’s stream of blessings. She indicated she may be collaborating with Karmapa on projects involving Machik’s severance practice, and on women’s issues. Wonderful!
This particular encampment did not take place in an ornate, embellished Tibetan tent, however, but in a stark white temporary structure supported by huge metal poles that stretched to the sky and was buttressed by many canvas supports. Large-screen television monitors placed at intervals throughout the tent gave those of us who were sitting toward the back a clear view of Karmapa’s very expressive face and gestures.
We all stood, as is customary, to watch Karmapa leave the brightly embellished main shrine building, descend the red stairs into the courtyard, and enter the tent. His entrance was marked with the fragrance of incense, a procession that included dark-suited security people and high-ranking lamas clad in robes of maroon and gold, and the distinctive sound of Tibetan gyaling trumpets.
As high as the tent was, when Karmapa ascended the short flight of steps to his throne, it looked like his head almost bumped the top of the tent! And while his stature is imposing, it wasn’t only his height that made it seem as though his presence filled the tent.
Returning to KTD after three years “seems like a dream,” Karmapa said, but “despite difficulties, we are now reunited and I am really delighted”—at which point the whole tent full of people, all of whom shared his delight, erupted into thunderous applause.
During the first few minutes of his remarks on this first day of the teachings, I was struck by what seemed to me to be the unusual quality of Karmapa’s voice. Whether he is speaking sternly or gently—or even, as he did fairly frequently, engaging in animated debates with his translator, the brilliant Lama Yeshe Gyamtso—Karmapa’s voice has a magnificent musical quality; “~melodious voice~” was what I wrote in my notebook.
And at some point during these early remarks, the phrase “sitting in the splendid tent of dharma” flashed through my mind.
Karmapa thanked everyone for building KTD—the new building is now complete after decades of work toward that goal—and said that those who have helped with this effort should now “rejoice in what you have done.”
Early in his talk, Karmapa remarked about the heat; the day had started out being very warm. A little while later, we heard the first raindrops hit the top of the tent, and Karmapa looked up and looked around. As the rain shower went on, the temperature dropped noticeably and became much more comfortable for all of us. I filed this occurrence away mentally as “one of those things that makes you go ‘hmmmm…'."
After he greeted us, Karmapa took some time to gather his thoughts, looking out at the audience or down at the table in front of him, sometimes rubbing the top of his head. This thought gathering was repeated several more times over the course of his two days at KTD.
Karmapa prefaced his talk by saying that he does not think of what he does as “lecturing or teaching,” but rather prefers the idea of “giving a speech…a forum for me to voice my thoughts, which I do without preparation.” And while I am certain that he knew we were all expecting a teaching about The 1000 Buddhas—because that was what had been publicized before the event—Karmapa showed no qualms about completely shattering our expectations. Instead, he expressed his wish to speak spontaneously, to express his thoughts of the moment, and to speak from personal experience, because it would be “more beneficial for me to speak to you directly and personally.”
So we were forewarned, right from the get-go, to expect the unexpected.