Mar 8, 1980

The Karmapa performs the name-burning ceremony

His Holiness' last Vajra Crown Ceremony 
in Olfert Fischersgade, Copenhagen 1977.
Photo: Benny Gunnø.
The Karmapa of course has several attendants, however the main one is usually a reincarnate lama, or tulku, who will then have the opportunity to be close to the Karmapa. This main attendant would then sleep just outside of the Karmapa’s bedroom in case his services should happen to be required during the night. When he was younger, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche had the honour of this position, so he witnessed many interesting details in the life of the Karmapa.

One time the Karmapa called out for a servant and told him to arrange a shrine, bring such-and-such a text and prepare for a name-burning ceremony. So they quickly gathered everything that he had requested and set up a small makeshift shrine beside his bed, where they set up the necessary tormas etc. The 16th Karmapa was a man of action and didn’t waste time discussing his intentions with others, he typically just got down to the task at hand. You might think of him as a benevolent dictator in an enlightened mandala, always doing what is best for everyone. As soon as everything was ready he opened the text and started chanting, then he performed the name-burning after which he sat quietly gazing into midair, then shouted the sacred syllable several times and snapped his fingers. He then finished chanting the text, wrapped it back up and motioned for them to take the shrine away. 

The Karmapa however never explained why he had performed the ceremony, and as far as Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche knew they hadn’t received any request to perform this ceremony so they were all left wondering why the Karmapa had just gone to all this trouble. Several hours later someone came running into the room exclaiming, “Yishin Norbu! Wishfulfilling Jewel! The King of Bhutan has passed away and we have just received a call from Bhutan requesting you to perform the name-burning ceremony for him. They said that you are the one in whom they have the most faith and please do it immediately.” The Karmapa calmly turned toward the panting monk and said, “I already did it.”

Later, he told Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, “Whomever I have had a link with in this life, either good or bad, they always come before me when they are passing through the bardo. Even though they no longer have a physical body, I always recognize who they are. Of course, they also know who I am as free of the limitations of the physical body the spirit in the intermediate state is now clairvoyant. If they have a pure karmic connection they will remain in my presence until I liberate them. If not, then they fly off and never come back, having taken some new form and new life.”

Even for the Karmapa, who was like a buddha in person, there was still no guarantee that you could be liberated. So it is important to both have devotion and to apply the teachings as to how to attain liberation in this very body and life. It is said, “if you can’t have intelligent faith in a great master, then at least have blind stupid faith.” Such advice is hard to swallow for Westerners I know, but perhaps it really is good advice and worth following. Death is a guarantee for us all, and many of us have no idea what actually happens when we die. 

Tulku Urgyen once said, “If there was no continuation of consciousness after death then everything is fine. But if there is then you’ve got reason to worry.” We really can’t know for sure what happens when a person dies. Some people believe in reincarnation and are certain that they will be reborn as a human. However, in all the words of the Buddha I have not found anywhere where he said such a thing; so I really don’t know where such a belief came from other than one’s own hopes and dreams. According to the Buddha there is no guarantee as to what you will come back as in the next life; it all depends upon previous attitudes and habits, in a word: karma. We can never be certain whether we will be reborn with feathers, scales, fur or shell. Isn’t it true that the best approach is to have no preconceptions, and instead leave it open and hedge our bets.

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