Memories, Dreams and Reflections of the 16th Karmapa: Death is an Illusion

by Christine Bell
I met the Karmapa several times as he traveled to Chicago. He stayed in a large Victorian mansion on Sheridan Road near Lake Michigan rented by several of our Buddhist community practitioners, including me. When Karmapa arrived we had all moved out and furnished the home with our best furniture. Then we staffed the residence with cooks, helpers and security. I still possess an elaborate tea cup that we used to serve him tea. 
I attended the Black Crown Ceremony that he gave in Chicago in a large hotel convention room, along with many hundreds of other people. Karmapa gave several group interviews in which about thirty of us were allowed to come into the living room of the house, sit on cushions and ask questions. At the time I was very devout and wanted to be a Buddhist nun. I asked Karmapa about this. He told me “Wait until there is a place for this ( a nunnery).” I don’t know if this was his answer to me or a general answer to those with this desire. But I suspect this was a direct answer to me. Later I married and have been married now for 20 years. I never stopped my meditation practice.
Karmapa was unfailingly cheerful with a very sunny smile. He radiated energy and confidence. He moved decisively with grace and purpose, listened intently to questions and had a very warm demeanor. When he laughed, he had charming dimples. Despite his warmth and friendliness there was something about him that was very regal, a purposefulness and grace in his movements and speech. He never seemed frivolous, distracted or awkward. I would say there was a rare peaceful confidence about him; radiant and full of sparkling energy.
Later when Karmapa developed cancer he came to Illinois to be treated at a hospital nearby. He died here. I never saw him at that time because I was working. Others I knew visited the hospital or volunteered to cook for the monks who were staying nearby. People told me that the hospital staff were amazed that the Karmapa never showed any sign of pain or complained despite the fact he had a form of cancer which was usually quite painful. Karmapa asked one person who cried when he saw him, “Why are you crying? Death is an illusion.”
Karmapa died in this hospital in Illinois just north of Chicago. I went to O’Hara airport when his body was being shipped back to India. A group of us were able to pay our respects in this way and saw the casket being loaded onto the plane.


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