Birth and Early Years of the 17th Karmapa
In June 1985 a son was born into a nomad family in the Lhatok region of Eastern Tibet. In the months prior to his birth, his mother had wonderful dreams. On the day of his birth, a cuckoo landed on the tent in which he was born, and many people in the neighborhood heard a mysterious conch-like sound, resounding throughout the valley. In Tibet, such events are considered auspicious portents of the birth of an enlightened teacher.
The young nomad boy was called Apo Gaga, “Happy Brother”. From the beginning, his family regarded him as special, and believed that he might be the reincarnation of a rinpoche. When he was four years old, they sent him to the local monastery to begin his education, though he continued to spend much of his time at home with the family. Then, in the late spring of 1992, the now seven-year-old announced to his parents that they should move their encampment to a different valley, and told them to expect a visit from traveling monks. They did as he said and, shortly after setting up home in the new location, a group of Karma Kagyu lamas arrived. Unbeknown to the family, the lamas were searching for the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa, following instructions left in a secret prediction letter, written by the 16th Karmapa before he died. This letter contained details of the year of his rebirth, the location, and the names of his future mother and father, and the details matched Apo Gaga’s life exactly. He was duly recognized as the 17th Karmapa, and given the name Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama issued a formal letter, supporting the recognition of Apo Gaga as the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, and the Chinese Government supported the choice too.
During his lifetime, the 16th Karmapa wrote many poems and songs, predicting that, though he would leave his traditional seat of Tsurphu in Tibet, he would return to Tsurphu again soon, that his root teacher would be HE Situ Rinpoche, and that he would study in India. After the death of the 16th Karmapa, it became clear that these predictions concerned his reincarnation.
Furthermore, the 19th Century master Chogyur Lingpa made a number of predictions about the lives of the Karmapas, and those he made concerning the 17th Karmapa matched the details of Apo Gaga’s birth.
Karmapa’s Return to Tsurphu in Tibet, the Historical Seat of the Karmapas
On His Holiness’s historic return to Tsurphu Monastery, in June 1992, he entered the monastery on horseback, wearing the traditional, silk brocade clothes and golden, riding hat of a high lama.
Over 20,000 devotees assembled to witness his return. The following morning, some 25,000 people filed past His Holiness to receive a personal blessing, and then, two months later, before thousands of Tibetans and foreign devotees, he was enthroned, on September 27, 1992,
At Tsurphu, the Karmapa began his studies in Tibetan, the Buddhist sciences of mind, ritual, and the sacred arts, such as dance. Each day he also gave audiences to hundreds of visitors from across Tibet and around the world. He soon began to bestow empowerments and participate in various rituals at the monastery. At the age of ten, His Holiness began to recognize the reincarnations of other Kagyu lamas, including such eminent teachers as Pawo Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Dabzang Rinpoche. In addition, while His Holiness was at Tsurphu, the monastery underwent extensive rebuilding to restore the temples, shrines, stupas, a shedra, and residences that had been badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution and then neglected over the years, fulfilling another of the duties of a Karmapa.
However, in order to exercise his future role, His Holiness needed to receive all the empowerments and transmissions of the lineage, but he was unable to do so in Tibet as many of the Kagyu lineage teachers were living in exile in India. With this at the forefront of his mind, he and a handful of attendants left Tibet for India.
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