My Life: His Holiness The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa And I

Charlene Jones (2006)

Life winds us up and puts us where we need to be, most often it seems when we are not looking.

The Dharma Center of Canada is the 400 acres of land in Kinmount, Ontario founded by my root teacher, Karma Tensing Dorje Namgyal Rinpoche. It was the first Buddhist centre started by Canadians, way back in 1965 (see

Whenever he was in Ontario, Namgyal Rinpoche created some teaching event of interest and intrigue at the Center. (For more about Namgyal Rinpoche, visit

The Dharma Center needed then as now much attention in the way of money and time from members of this chartered, not-for-profit organization. In the mid-seventies, following another lecture by Namgyal challenging us to get involved, to not be an "arm chair bodhisattva" I volunteered to be Secretary for the Dharma Center of Canada.

Easy enough. A few hours a week, involving activities for which I had no training or skill matched the fiscal rewards, which were none. The Chairperson at the time guided and supplied me with direction as I floundered my way through the simplest tasks.

Then the elections. In late 1976 the elections for a new Chairperson were to be held. Fine. Except the outgoing Chair and Treasurer decided I was to be the next Chairperson!

I knew my remarkable ability to type about 10 words a minute on an very manual typewriter, to stamp and send letters to different other centers founded by my teacher and to answer the occasional phone-call from my home did not qualify me for this unusual honour.

Yet these men insisted: I had to run for Chairperson.

If elected I would be the youngest person and the only woman to date to be Chair of the Dharma Center. After a firm and complete "No" from me, these fine gentlemen continued to argue, persuade, cajole and generally not give up until I gave in.

But why? If I was to run, I had to understand why they felt so strongly.

Because, they finally revealed, they disliked the only other candidate.

I was to be the option by default. Somehow, knowing I was in a default position made it possible for me, not because of any high motivation regarding the Dharma Center or its members in their time of need, but because I figured if I became Chair by default, I did not have to concern myself about failure. A default choice requires no special talent, except to show up.

The day of the elections came and went and I was elected. I felt some elation, more than I would have forecast, and noted how this must be in part why some people keep in politics all their lives. I was Chair and when I spoke, people listened, even though most of what I had to say was given to me ahead of time by the outgoing Chair and his buddy the Treasurer.

So it was. For a month or two into the New Year I handled the usual tasks with growing confidence and ease.

Then in the middle of one night I shot bolt upright in bed with the thought "The Karmapa is coming to the Dharma Center and nothing is ready!"

His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa was, as indicated, the 16th incarnation of the head of the Kargyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Think, His Holiness the Dalai Lama without as much media. (Visit for many ways to learn more about His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa).

Now this visit with His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa had been arranged and confirmed by the previous administration for April of 1977. His Holiness was to take the second of his trips to North America, during which the Dharma Center was already committed to a three day visit including the ceremony of the Vajra Crown, or Black Hat.

I confess to you now I did not know much about Tibetan Buddhism at that time. I still do not, in part because the practice itself is extremely detailed and elaborate. What I did learn very quickly was two things. One, the Black Hat or Vajra Crown ceremony can only be performed by the Karmapa. The second is anyone who sees this performance is ensured enlightenment within seven lifetimes.

We had three months, no money and too much to do. The Dharma Center buildings were in bad need of repair including the one building we thought to house His Holiness in: Hill House.

We needed mattresses, and covers for mattresses, we needed new plumbing, insulation and drywall in some of the main buildings, new heating units.. the list went on and on.

A brave contingent of folks travelled the three hours every weekend from Toronto to the Dharma Center and made miracles happen. I'm pretty sure most of what happens in the world at all happens because of small inconquerable, undefeated people such as these. They hammered, nailed, dug, wired, painted, plumbed, insulated.. How our Treasurer managed to come up with any money at all remains one of life's great mysteries to me.

These people made it happen. I recall making a few phone calls to organize people, then generally standing around a great deal, feeling slightly useless.

I had the insight to ask advice of an old and revered woman from the Dharma Center, Mrs. Raff. Her Buddhist name was Chorpel and in spite of having her own group with its own land-holdings and all the headaches this entails, she spent an evening with me over the Karmapa's expected visit.

Her advice was clear, simple, and to the point: get someone to handle the kitchen for you. She named a woman I had long admired and felt to be so far ahead of me in the life game, no friendship would be possible.

But here was a request. I made the request over and over since this wonderful woman did exactly as Chorpel had foretold: stalled and dallied and gave no answer and then, in the end, came forward and did a brilliant job.

She organized the kitchen so well, I was given compliments!

The day of His Holiness' arrival came finally. We tallied two hundred seventy five people more than we had capacity for.

Folks sardined onto the temple floor, hung from the rafters in Main House, even camped on the wet, cold and unforgiving April ground.

The day dawned clear and bright. Those many many people streamed around the hill below the temple, greeting others they had not seen for many months, acting for all the world as though they had been housed in a five star hotel.

The monks made their way to the temple, now festooned in prayer flags and Tibetan thangkas.

I sat in the front row as directed. I had prepared for the day's event by choosing a knee length off-white dress which rode up to mid-thigh as I sat in the crosslegged posture of a good meditator. My dear friend, a man whose knowledge of Dharma I have respected and leaned on through the years, Sonam Gyatso bent over me and said "Your legs are showing. The monks are staring. What can we do about this?" I was crammed in so tightly getting up was out of the question. I grabbed one of the ceremonial scarves from the small table in front of me, and with a flourish hid my offending legs from sight.

I sat. Sonam came back and said in my ear "The Karmapa is concerned that the temple is not large enough for everyone to see the Vajra Crown ceremony."

Then in a moment of human ignorance I opened my mouth and what fell out was, "Well, can't he do it more than once?"

My friend, flabbergasted at my thick-headedness, but needing to get on with a resolution, stated firmly and not unkindly "No, he can't. They want to take the doors off the temple, put His Holiness in the door frame and let everyone see. They need your permission as Chair to do this."

Never one to be graceful under pressure, ever ready to grab for power, I argued. Finally, his continued diligence won out. The saws came out, the doors came off and everyone sitting in the sunshine saw the glorious ceremony of His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa as he performed the Vajra Crown Ceremony.

Such is the way of life that those of us who are least deserving sometimes fall upon moments of surpassing grace.

=- © 2006 metro.isp Inc, Charlene Jones and Sean Wenzel. All rights reserved. With appreciative thanks to Charlene & Sean =-

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