Recalling a Buddha

December 16, 2009 by     Print This Post Print This Post

or, What is Lineage?

Gregg Eller’s Recalling a Buddha: Memories of the Sixteenth Karmapa, The Life and Death of an Awakened Being, is out on DVD and in limited theatrical circulation. This isn’t a “general interest” movie, but for those in the lineage of the Buddha,  as it traces through the mahasiddhas of India and on through the Kagyu cave and monastery yogis of Tibet, it is a must see. It is pretty much focused on the story of the Karmapa from what might be called a practice point of view, and it offers a real glimpse into the meaning of lineage within a practicing tradition.

Chögyam Trungpa and the 16th Karmapa, 1974

The movie, while it shows a number of historical clips (along with a Black Crown ceremony and many extra features), mainly consists of interviews with the people around the Karmapa, including students, attendants, translators, his “dharma children”, the four princes (Tai Situ, Jamgon Kongtrul, Gyaltsap, Shamar) and Thrangu Rinpoche, Achi Tsepal, Tenga Rinpoche, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, Ponlop Rinpoche, Tenzin Palmo, Gene Smith, Mitchell Levy, etc.

What’s striking: the meaning of lineage. This was the great lesson invited and enabled by Chögyam Trungpa when he brought Karmapa XVI to the west in 1974: for the first time his students saw Trungpa Rinpoche acting in dedicated service to a master of his lineage. The Karmapa was presented as a Dharma King, able to transmit the regal yet totally relaxed essence of mahamudra – “liberation through seeing”. Then, in the movie, lineage echoes again when someone mentions that Karmapa XVI, normally a mountain of shunyata, would tremble at the thought of his own guru.

The Loppön Lodro Dorje recently alluded to how Chögyam Trungpa worked with creating a teaching container into which he could invite other teachers to open up and present in detail aspects of the dharma. Tenga Rinpoche was one such figure: Trungpa Rinpoche insisted that the first Chakrasamvara abhisheka he gave only take place after Tenga Rinpoche had had time to work with the translators and others on presenting the traditional details of this key practice. For some this meant a post-Vajrayogini wait of 6 to 8 years. Trungpa Rinpoche took his time, and included his sangha in that patience, to present the Chakrasamvara dharma within a full and thoroughly prepared container that was at the same time vaster and deeper.

Presenting dharma is not a solo activity: it is built on generations of human beings actively working on their awake, and that awake is invited through the lineage for the benefit of current students and of all beings. A glimpse of the Karmapa is invited, and that glimpse echoes through a whole social network of enlightening beings (many of whom appear in this movie). What we see here are some of the individuals who helped educate Karmapa XVI, many who were taught and brought to realization by him, and many who now in turn have been teachers of the next Karmapa, the XVIIth.

This is also reflected in the intention and framing of practice, which is within a very wide lineage tree. Something like guru yoga is not just addressed to, and coming from, one’s immediate guru, but to and from his guru and family of awake. This is a hidden enabler, which Trungpa Rinpoche’s immediate students are perhaps discovering. For them, the guru yoga was addressed to Karmapa, “Karmapa Kyenno”. Many of those who practiced in that way, are finding that, on encountering Karmapa XVII, “the Karmapa never left”, and that a much larger container of dharma continues unfolding. But that’s a another story…

Photo from Garuda IV, p 76, by George Holms


10 Responses to “Recalling a Buddha”

  1. Charles Marrow on December 16th, 2009 1:56 pm

    Thanks to an article on the Shambhala Times web site, my attention was brought to a very interesting manifestation of the enlightened presence and activity of the Karmapa lineage. Beginning this coming Saturday evening, December 19, (Nova Scotia time) there will be a live and direct transmission of HH Karmapa, Urgyen Thinley Dorje XVII teaching from the Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya India. His Holiness will be teaching on a Mahayana text entitled, “Letter to a Friend” which was a teaching given originally to an Indian King and would, therefore, be a good teaching for a lay audience.

    I regard myself as a devotee of His Holiness and have seen him in person in India in 2001 and Seattle 2006. I am all geared up with a minor upgrade in my internet speed, I have invited a couple of friends to join together in viewing the dharma talks together during the wee hours of the night and all this is happening in a modest sized apartment in a small town in Nova Scotia. This will be my holiday practice intensive and, for me, is a very interesting development in my personal connection to the Kagyu lineage tradition of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in addition to being an exploration of the way that technology can make the dharma accessible. For anyone interested in this series of talks of His Holiness Karmapa, please go to – …and also get talk transmission times on the Shambhala Times web site which has some user friendly conversions to North American time zones.

    Karmapa Khyenno!!!

    Charles Marrow, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia

  2. Rob Graffis on December 17th, 2009 8:34 am

    Three years ago, I read a book called Blazing Splendor. Tulku Urgyen descibed a teacher who had Kagyu practioners on one side of a valley, and Dzogchen students on the other side of the valley. The teacher was more monastic with his Kagyu students, and less strict on his Dzogchen students. Unfortunately, I gave my copy of the book away, so I can’t recall the name of the teacher.
    The point was traditions can complement each other as opposing each other.
    You might want to check out this website about the book:

  3. rita ashworth on December 24th, 2009 7:10 am

    Dear All

    I saw an interesting video on utube re Karmapa 16. It was an interview with Gendun Rinpoche who I briefly saw in Manchester in the 1970s. The interview describes Karmapa’s 16 ‘order’ to GR to come to the west and set up centres because of the approaching dark ages. It was a wonderful interview I recommend it to everyone. It also gives a portrait of how Karmapa 16 worked with his students at that time.

    O yes and I believe Karmapa 17 is planning to come to Europe in 2010 and wants to work with all dharma groups for the visit – Ringu Tulku has also announced this on utube and set up a website for the visit for people who are interested in seeing him -check it out!

    Best wishes for the season

    Rita Ashworth

  4. Lee Weingrad on January 7th, 2010 11:51 am

    is He Who still in that movie?

  5. Mark Szpakowski on January 7th, 2010 1:13 pm

    He Who?

  6. John Tischer on January 7th, 2010 3:07 pm

    He Who, the happy yogi.

  7. Gregg on February 6th, 2010 1:32 am

    Yes, He Who Stands Firm is still in the movie but his commentary is considerably briefer.

    The film is about 40 minutes shorter than the cut I released a few years ago, has perhaps 100+ new photographs and much never-before-seen footage. It’s very much an entirely different movie and has two hours of Extra features.

    Gregg Eller

  8. John Castlebury on November 11th, 2011 9:01 am

    Summer 1980: His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa had to climb a flight of concrete steps from the alley in back of 1111 Pearl Street to reach the landing of the second floor entrance to the then Naropa Institute on a blazing hot sunny day in Boulder, Colorado.

    Many of us lined the landing which was long, holding scarves and in anjali, to greet His Holiness, and as I was the maintenance man, I was standing near the door at the end of the landing as Karmapa slowly slowly came closer and closer.

    As His Holiness passed by, a hush fell over the world like coming face-to-face with one of the natural wonders of the world. His Holiness seemed like a presence not a personality, an utterly sane and sober presence; he seemed to be the fruition of the path of dharma that we were practising.

    But these are just words from afterwards, at the time it was wordless. His Holiness passed by so close I could practically feel his breath, and time stood still.

    And ever since then oddly the number 1111 has stuck in my mind so that any time I notice the time and it is 11:11, it takes me back to that place and time at 1111 Pearl Street and to His Holiness, and time again stands still for a minute. And today is November 11, or 11/11, and it’s 2011, so that makes today 11/11/11! May time stand still all day!

    During that visit, I was included in a group audience with His Holiness, seated at his feet, and normally too shy to ask even Trungpa Rinpoche a question in public, a question suddenly blurted out of me before I had a chance to get nervous. Through the translator I asked Karmapa how it could be that His Holiness could appear to be both so fierce and yet so gentle at the same time? His Holiness asked me if I meant the Mahakala aspect, and though not quite sure what I meant, I answered, Yes. And then with a bemused smile His Holiness said, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.

    And I think Karmapa was not speaking just to me, or to the others in the audience, but even to all of us 30 years later who are reading this at this very moment.

  9. Sophie0927 on November 11th, 2012 6:01 am

    I just shared the words from John, about 1111 story with 16th Karmapa with my Chinese friends. And today is Nov, 11 again!

  10. Skye68 on March 3rd, 2014 1:44 am

    I have been enjoying the DVD of this film with a few tears of emotion, but not of sadness.
    Reading John’s comment above about 1111 and time 11:11, touched a deep chord with me, also.

    Here, in Australia, November 11 has deep political significance (our elected Prime Minister was sacked), and also is remembered for Remembrance Day (or Armistice Day), a memorial day observed in Commonwealth countries since the end of World War I to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. Many years back, I noticed the time 11:11 often caught my attention on all the digital clocks I have in the house. I wondered what could be the significance of this symbolism.

    Perhaps John’s comment provides an answer. Thank you, John Castlebury.