As the Karmapa’s car drew to a halt in the street outside Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Buddhist Centre, the combined Samye Ling and Samye Dzong Sangha greeted him in traditional Tibetan style. Long horns resounded, accompanied by gyalings, drums and cymbals. A monk held the great golden umbrella, which signifies kingship, above the Karmapa’s head as he strode up the steps into the centre. His Holiness was preceded by Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, head of the Samye Ling organisation, and escorted by a Golden Procession of monks and nuns, most in their special Kagyu ceremonial hats and a few wearing the yellow pointed ones. Some carried incense, some blew conches, some played Tibetan trumpets, and some held Buddhist flags and victory banners aloft. Inside the center a group of invited guests offered katas. The Karmapa beamed and waved at everyone before making his way up the central staircase to his private quarters where he took lunch and had chance to talk with Lama Yeshe Losal.
Kagyu Samye Dzong is a branch of Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland. The latter was founded in 1967 by two Kagyu masters, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche. As the first ever Tibetan Buddhist center to be established in the West, it took its name after Samye, the first monastery to be established in Tibet. The two Rinpoches were heart disciples of the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, who took a great interest in its development. Not only did he visit twice, performing the Vajra Crown ceremony and giving empowerments and teachings, but he also assured Akong Rinpoche of the long- term future of Buddhism in the West in general and at Samye Ling specifically. When Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche left for the USA in 1970, Akong Rinpoche continued the project, and it expanded to include a network of branch monasteries in the UK, Europe, and South Africa under the Samye Dzong organization.
Kagyu Samye Dzong London was founded in 1998 but it was only in 2009 that it was finally able to move to a permanent home in a grand Victorian building, which was originally the Bermondsey public library situated in Spa Road, Southwark. After some refurbishment, the centre opened in 2010.
2017 is the year in which Samye Ling is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and this has coincided auspiciously with the 17th Karmapa’s first visit toLondon. Thus today’s event at Kagyu Samye Dzong London was a triple celebration: the Karmapa’s return to the UK, his first ever visit to a Karma Kagyu centre in the UK, and the fiftieth anniversary of Samye Ling. Weeks of preparation and hard work by the combined Sangha and lay communities of Samye Ling and Samye Dzong came to fruition in this short visit.
In the early afternoon, the Karmapa came down to the main shrine room to be officially welcomed by 35 members of the Samye Ling and Samye Dzong Sangha and an audience of 150 guests, representing the worldwide Samye Dzong community.
In a short speech, full of tongue-in-cheek humour, His Holiness once more expressed his delight at being in London and this time especially being able to visit the Kagyu Samye Dzong Centre, “with Lama Yeshe and the boss Lama Zangmo.” He reassured everyone that his visit to Samye Dzong London was a visit to Samye Ling by proxy.
He thanked Samye Ling particularly for preparing the stage so well at the Battersea Evolution. The Karmapa then reflected on the greatness of Akong Rinpoche and his tireless work on behalf of the Tibetan people both inside and outside Tibet. He had built and maintained monasteries, hospitals, orphanages, and schools along with other resources for the Tibetans. Since his tragic death, the great loss to Tibetans had become evident. However, His Holiness continued, he had been encouraged to see the efforts of Lama Yeshe Losal and members of the Samye Ling and Samye Dzong communities to continue the enlightened activities of Akong Rinpoche and propagate his vision. It was the Karmapa’s heartfelt prayer that Lama Yeshe Losal would live long. With regards to finding Akong Rinpoche’s reincarnation, the Karmapa advised that this should be done very discreetly in the early stages to avoid any obstacles.
On the purpose of Samye Ling, His Holiness reflected how it was born from the vision of the 16th Karmapa. Rangjung Rigpe Dorje established Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in North America and Samye Ling in the United Kingdom with the aim of creating places where monastic culture could develop in the West. The 17th Karmapa emphasised that it was important for the monastic sangha to continue to exist as a practice environment. However, with changing times and new cultural norms, traditional forms of monasticism could be reconsidered. For example, he suggested, it might be more appropriate for these time to adopt the Theravada model, in which people can commit themselves to becoming a monk or nun for a limited amount of time. Then after some years, they could take lifetime vows if they wished.
Finally, he shared the good news that he had been given a two-year visa to the UK and hoped that he would be able to return again soon. In the short time of his visit, the Karmapa had strengthened the hearts of a community that still felt the tragic loss of its spiritual guide, made them laugh, reinforced the direction they had taken, and given them hope that he and Akong Rinpoche would both return.