Memories, Dreams and Reflections of the 16th Karmapa: When the Iron Bird Flies

Steve Roth /
As told to Don Morreale in a personal interview
reprinted from The Chronicles Project
17 July 2010

There’s a famous prediction attributed to Padmasambhava, 8th Century Tibetan saint:
When the iron bird flies,
And horses run on wheels,
The Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world
And the Dharma will come to the land of the Red Man
I was fortunate enough to be present at the fulfillment of this prophecy. In October, 1974, His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa came to Colorado at the invitation of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I was asked to be his personal chauffeur. His Holiness expressed a desire to meet with the Hopi Indians in Arizona. We set about making the necessary arrangements even renting a brand new, gold colored Cadillac as the official vehicle for the journey. We finally left for Arizona trailed by a caravan of cars containing His Holiness’s retinue of attendant monks and lamas, a Tibetan translator named Achi, and around twenty-five American Buddhist practitioners from Karma Dzong in Boulder. Transfixed by the presence of his Holiness, I did my best to drive mindfully.

Early in the afternoon of the following day, we arrived at a place called Second Mesa, a high plateau on the Hopi reservation. It looked like an old chocolate cake. I nosed the Cadillac onto the dirt road that spiraled up around it, and we slowly made our way to the top. Even though it was October, the temperature was well over one-hundred degrees. The place looked dusty, desolate, and poor. A man who looked to be about eighty years old, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, approached and greeted His Holiness. His name, he said, was Chief Ned. There was a sweet, loving, and gentle air about him. Through Achi the translator, His Holiness asked: “How goes it? How are things with your people?”
‘Not too good,” replied Chief Ned. We haven’t had rain in seventy-three days.”
His Holiness listened with an expression of deep compassion on his face. “I will do something for you,” he said.
Then Chief Ned invited us to go down with him into a kiva [ceremonial room] to see some sacred relics. There was a small hole at the top of it with a rickety ladder poking out. When he motioned for us to go down it, His Holiness politely declined. He was a rather large and portly man, and there was no way he could possibly fit through that hole. He asked that the rest of us go down while he remained up above. Down in the cool darkness, Chief Ned showed us an eagle feather and other sacred relics.
When we climbed back up into the sunlight, His Holiness abruptly ended the visit. “Let’s go,” he said, and that was that. We got into the cars and headed back down the dusty road and out across the desert to the Hopi Cultural Center and Motel where we were scheduled to spend the night. As we drove, His Holiness, sitting right across from me in the passenger seat, began chanting a puja and making sacred mudra gestures with his hands.
The desert baked and shimmered in the intense heat. I looked out at the sky and noticed a tiny, sheeplike, fleecy little ball of a cloud, all by itself way out there on the horizon. I didn’t give it much thought. I kept on driving, and the Karmapa kept on chanting, and ten or fifteen minutes went by like that before I glanced up again. Much to my surprise, little puffballs of cloud now polka-dotted the sky from horizon to horizon.
The next time I looked, the clouds had congealed into a solid gray mass. This was getting interesting. By the time we reached the Hopi Cultural Center and Motel, the sky had darkened to an ominous and foreboding black, not just black, but a classic, “Cecil-B-DeMille-Moses-and-the-Ten-Commandments” black!
We rolled into the motel parking lot. One of the attendants opened the door for His Holiness. He got out and walked to his motel room where another attendant stood ready to open the door. I watched his back as he disappeared into the room. At the very instant that the door clicked shut behind him, there was an eruption of thunder and lightning like I’ve never seen before in my life. Crash! Boom! The most dramatic display you could imagine! And then the rain started coming down hard. Buckets of it. Sheets and torrents of it. It went on and on like that, splashing down on the roof of the Cadillac with the power and intensity of a waterfall.
By that evening, word had gotten out to all the surrounding villages that this “Indian King” had made rain. Pretty soon a crowd had gathered around the motel. In every face there was a look of awe and wonder towards his Holiness, who at the moment was conducting an Avalokiteshvara (compassion) empowerment for the assembled crowd. We Western practitioners felt very much like outsiders at this event. The amazing facial resemblance between the Tibetans and the Hopi suggested an ancient bond between the two peoples. To me, it felt like a reunion.

His Holiness with his driver, Steve Roth, 1974


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