Karme Ling Retreat Center (and its Odd Weather) Welcome the Karmapa

(April 23, 2015 – Delhi, New York) His Holiness the Karmapa spent much of his day today on a daytrip to Karme Ling Retreat Center, located in a quiet, wooded corner of upstate New York. Karme Ling Retreat Center was built under the guidance of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, in response to a suggestion made to him by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa during his last visit to New York over 30 years ago. At present, a cohort of yogis and yoginis are engaged in the center’s sixth consecutive traditional three-year, three-month retreat.
Each of the three times the 17th Karmapa has visited the United States, he has made a point of visiting Karme Ling. In turn, the weather itself had made a point of displaying anomalous meteorological conditions each time the Karmapa paid a visit. This year, the anomalies began even before His Holiness had left KTD, with an unusual rainbow striping the clouds shortly after sunrise above Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD). The temperature in Woodstock yesterday had hit 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 celsius), yet by the time His Holiness had completed the 90-minute drive from KTD to Karme Ling, his car was moving through dancing flakes of snow. Somehow the elements had managed to conspire to create yet another first for His Holiness, since among all the diverse experiences he has had on this two month trip, this was the first time he had experienced snowfall.
The lamas of Karme Ling had arranged a ceremonial procession to greet the 17th Karmapa when he arrived, and many supporters of the retreat center were there to receive him as well. On hand too were seven aspirants to monastic ordination, newly shorn yet glowing with anticipation at having His Holiness the Karmapa himself receive their first offering of crown hair. The sudden drop in temperature gave them an early opportunity to experience what all monastics eventually discover, that shaving the head is much like taking off a permanent hat one did not know one had been wearing.
One of the monks in His Holiness’s entourage, who was raised in the Indian Himalayas, queried as to whether what was falling was actually snow, since each drop that fell looked like a flower here, whereas back home the snow was more round. Indeed, each flake that fell on the maroon robes stood out on contrast as a perfect and uniquely shaped white crystalline flower—that is, until the moment His Holiness’s vehicle pulled into the driveway. At that moment, the snow intensified exponentially, and the flakes at once gave way to the round and full balls of snow more familiar in the Himalayas. As the horns blew, the snow fell with great enthusuiasm as the Gyalwang Karmapa emerged into the air, now crisp and white.
Once inside the main building at Karme Ling, which serves as the primary residence of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, the Karmapa ascended to the shrine room for a traditional welcome with tea and rice. Once the customary offerings of body, speech and mind had been made, His Holiness summoned the aspirants forward. One by one, they kneeled and inclined their hands, palms together, as His Holiness cut a tuft of hair from the crown of each of them, thereby offering his blessing for them to enter the monastic path.
Everyone was asked to remain in the central building as His Holiness departed with Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and the three-year retreat masters to tour the facility, beginning with the men’s retreat house. As is the tradition, men and women engage in retreat separately. At Karme Ling, the men’s and women’s retreats each take place in a central building containing the shrine room and individual rooms upstairs, with a kitchen and dining area below, and surrounded by an encircling fence set some fifty feet away from the building.
His Holiness entered the retreat compound alone, accompanied only by the retreat masters, and spent half an hour with the male retreatants, giving them a short teaching and answering some individual questions posed by them. As there are both Tibetans and Westerners engaged in the present retreat, His Holiness made his remarks first in Tibetan and then repeated himself in English.
Among the comments he made to them, according to the retreat master who accompanied him inside, was to remind them that the purpose of their retreat was to transform their personality. He told them too that if one does not have right motivation, retreat can be like a prison. Conversely prisoners, including many practitioners who were imprisoned in Tibet after 1959, turned their prison sentence into a retreat by having the right motivation, and served their time in prison not in a depressed state but with a happy mind.
Following the talk, he entered each retreatant’s room and blessed it individually, and then called the retreatants to join him for a group photo. He suggested they take a photo together outside “Milarepa style,” as he described it, in the snow that was still falling with wild abandon.
From there he proceeded to the women’s retreat, where he spent an hour and a half. As the female retreatants include native English and Chinese speakers, to everyone’s delight His Holiness gave a talk in English, and then translated himself into Chinese. After entering each room to confer an individual blessing, he shared a leisurely meal with Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche in a library located behind the shrine room. The noon meal had multiple courses, and each retreatant had the opportunity to enter and personally serve one dish to the two lamas who so inspired them in the long years of their retreat.
After a group photo together in the shrine room, His Holiness departed, stopping to turn back and give the yoginis a final wave of farewell before exiting the sealed compound.
At this point, the weather had transformed completely again, and all was clear for His Holiness to stride out to a site where two new buildings are being constructed. Each of the two structures comprises a row of six self-contained units, to be used for individual retreats, both long-term and temporary. The Karmapa entered the rooms that were closest to completion, to find carpenters still toiling away installing cabinets and other fixtures. After inspecting the site, His Holiness personally planted a tree between the two structures.
Following a brief stop back at the residence of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, the 17th Karmapa headed down the hill to the Dewachen Colombarium. Built in 2005, the columbarium holds hundreds of niches that can hold the ashes of the deceased, and is the site of the annual Amitabha puja and purification ritual on behalf of the deceased. His Holiness the Karmapa entered and offered his blessings to the deceased.
His final stop on this visit was to a residential building located on the way out of the retreat center. The residents offered snacks and drinks for the road trip back to Woodstock, all of which were readily accepted by the attendants and security personnel accompanying the Karmapa. His Holiness himself accepted a bottled drink with a broad smile, and left his blessings behind one last time, entering the quarters of each resident.
As the caravan of cars rolled down the hill, the weather spirits appeared to have completed their display of delight, and the day settled back into something much more common for a typical late April afternoon in upstate New York, partly sunny but brisk.

 Photography by Lama Sam.


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