Karmapa's Great Escape by Martin Marvet (Bodhi)

This article excerpt is based on a number of stories in the press, published in such places as The New York Times, ABC News, the London Telegraph, Newsweek and the Nalandabodhi website, and a review of photographs, which have been assembled in great quantity on the web by numerous trekkers who have passed through these parts. Most of the information was kindly supplied by Nalandabodhi website editors and researchers. Since the Karmapa and his escape team have been publicly silent about his escape route and motivations, and I have no access to inside information, my reconstruction no doubt contains inaccuracies. However, investigative journalists have exhaustively probed the story, and I have done my best to put together a coherent account based on those reports. I list the major news accounts on which I have relied at the conclusion of this article.

In springtime a cuckoo will come to Tibet.
Its lovely song will strike sadness in your heart.
Then you will wonder where the man Rigdröl is.
Will not you, who depend on me, know untold grief?

On the day the swan circles the edge of the lake
And leaves its fledglings in the darkening swamp,
The day the white vulture soars in the depths of the sky,
You will wonder where the man Rigdröl is.

O Fledglings, I feel untold grief for you.
Now I will not explain much; this is but a jest,
Yet unified with ultimate reality.
When the Lord of the Path is held by the king of birds,

In prayer I aspire that we gather in great joy.
For this life, take this as the essential point to be heard:
Speech is indestructible sound like an echo.
Mind is empty, free of material concerns.

Excerpt from a song written by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa (1944), translated by Michelle Martin. Translation © Michelle Martin 1994.

Background: The XVIth Gyalwang Karmapa is forced to leave Tibet

In 1944, before Mao Zedung had prevailed in China, and long before the Chinese army entered Tibet in force, His Holiness Karmapa predicted that he ("Rigdröl") would soon be required to leave Tsurphu, his monastery in Tibet. In a poem in 1944, he mentioned his "untold grief" in parting and in leaving his "fledglings" (disciples) behind, but he promised he would meet again with his students "in great joy" in Tsurphu "when the Lord of the Path is held by the king of birds," that is, in 1993. (Interpretation of the song provided to Michelle Martin by Thrangu Rinpoche.)

Tsurphu has been the home of the Karmapas since the time of Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa, who lived at Tsurphu from 1184 until his parinirvana in 1193. Karma Pakshi, the second Karmapa, built Tsurphu into an imposing presence. Over the centuries other Karmapas continued to expand Tsurphu, and sometimes to rebuild it when it suffered destruction by earthquake and conquerors. Dezhin Shekpa, the fifth Karmapa, predicted that "although Tsurphu will be destroyed and rebuilt many times, this monastery will be in existence until the end of this world."

Hugh Richardson, a British diplomat and scholar, described the entrance to Tsurphu Monastery based on a visit he had made in 1946:

The monastery stood in the shelter of a scrub-covered hill on the north side of a high, bare and narrow valley. In front, flowed a small tributary stream of the Tolung River. After passing through a narrow gate in the high wall surrounding the monastery, one came to a wide paved courtyard with buildings on three sides, the west side being open. In the center stood a stone pillar dating from the reign of Ralpachan and describing the foundation of a temple at Changbu in Tolung. It is opposite a flight of steep stone steps leading to a doorway, with a chain curtain, into what was perhaps a Gönkhang (Mahakala Prayer room).

The Karmapas resided at Tsurphu until 1959, when His Holiness the XVIth Karmapa fled to India. He eventually settled in Rumtek, Sikkim, which was to become the seat in exile for the Karma Kagyu. During the cultural revolution in the mid 1960s, the monastery was systematically dynamited until all the buildings were destroyed. The cultural revolution was not the first time Tsurphu had been damaged, and it has always later been rebuilt under the direction of the Karmapas. 

The XVIIth Gyalwang Karmapa Returns to Tolung Tsurphu Monastery

In 1981, the XVIth Karmapa entered parinirvana. In 1992, His Holiness the XVIIth Karmapa fulfilled the promise of the Karmapas, and returned to Tsurphu, a boy of seven. The Karmapa was self-identified, so to speak, through a letter that the 16th Karmapa had left behind in the care of His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche. The seventeenth incarnation of the Karmapa matched the predictions of the letter, as interpreted by senior Kagyu scholars. Due notice was given to the Office of the Dalai Lama, who examined the evidence and issued a "Buktham Rinpoche," official letter acknowledging the incarnation. His Holiness Sakya Trizen, the head of the Sakya, and His Holiness Mindrol Ling, one of the heads of the Nyingma, also offered their own acknowledgments. Even Beijing acknowledged that the Karmapa had been found in Tibet.

For many years the young Karmapa performed the activities of a bodhisattva, continuously meeting with people, studying and meditating as much as he could, sometimes performing ceremonies, sometimes dispensing "miracles," sometimes simply playing with toys, always presiding over the rebuilding of Tolung Tsurphu, seat of the Karmapas for nine hundred years. His Holiness tried to keep to completely spiritual pursuits, but as the years went by, obstacles to his activity increased.

His Holiness was not free to engage in the education and training required of a Karmapa. His Holiness' main teachers, His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche and His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, were unable to obtain visas to visit Tsurphu, and His Holiness was not permitted to leave Tibet. The Karmapa was not able to engage in the triad of activities, which passed on the lineage: key instructions, reading transmissions, and empowerments of the Kagyu tradition. So, although the Karmapa appeared to be able to do what he wished within the confines of Tsurphu, he merely had some apparent freedom to stay at the monastery and rebuild it; he did not have real freedom to learn, to teach, to enlighten.

In China, moreover, many officials believe it is the duty of every person and every institution to engage in some "patriotic" activities. Officials thus repeatedly requested of the Karmapa that he support the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama, denounce the Dalai Lama, give speeches prepared by politicians, appear at certain ceremonies, acquiesce to the repackaging of the Karmapa's positions. From a religious point of view, such requests are not appropriately made to a Karmapa and are not the appropriate activities of a Karmapa. The Karmapa often refused inappropriate requests. Those free thinkers in the Lhasa area who observed the Karmapa remarked upon his independence and spirit. But they also knew that the pressures on him to conform would continue to build.

Prophetic Signs for a Flight to India

In addition, the Karmapa reportedly pondered an image in a thangka painted in the 19th century, based on a vision by the terton Chogyur Dechen Lingpa. It is said that Guru Rinpoche appeared to the 19th century adept Chogyur Dechen Lingpa in a vision and prophesied the names and circumstances for Twenty-one Karmapa incarnations. Dechen Lingpa was a great nonsectarian master and lineage holder in the Nyingma school, who explicitly described his vision of the prophecy to Karmai Khenchen Rinchen Tarjay, Abbot of Karma Monastery. Artists rendered the vision in a painting.

In the painting, the Seventeenth Karmapa, named Pal Khyabdak Ugyen Gyalway Nyugu Drodul Trinley Dorje Tsal Chokle Nampar Gyalway De by Padmasambhava, is depicted under a pine tree in discussion with someone who can be identified by his clothing as an incarnation of Tai Situ Rinpoche. The Karmapa is reported to have remarked when still in Tibet that the scenery in the thangka illustration, amidst which the Karmapa figure and the Tai Situ figure were placed, did not look like the arid Tsurphu monastery region, but rather resembled the more lush vegetation of India. The XIIth Tai Situ Rinpoche is currently the Karmapa's primary teacher, and Situ Rinpoche's monastery, as well as the Karmapa's Rumtek monastery, are in India. Guru Rinpoche's prophecy indicated that the Karmapa would receive transmissions from H.E. Situ Rinpoche in India.

Although it seemed prophesied that the Karmapa receive lineage transmissions in India, Chinese officials refused to grant him permission to visit there. The Karmapa made many requests for a visa. Though government representatives had promised to issue a visa many years ago, they continued to renege. Years went by; no visa was granted. His main teachers continued to be barred from teaching him in Tibet.

In 1998, a different type of sign manifested. The Karmapa one day refused to return to his main residence, and instead directed some of his monks to get him something from the library, which was attached by a passageway to his main residence. The monks went to the library and could not easily find what the Karmapa had asked for, so they began to search for the Karmapa's requested item. They never found it; rather, they discovered two apparent assassins hiding there, armed with knives and possibly explosives. The men were captured and turned over to the authorities, but apparently were never prosecuted.

Meticulously Planning an Audacious Flight 

Karmapas are motivated solely by their pledge to liberate all beings. When the conditions in Tsurphu threatened to obstruct the XVIIth Karmapa's activity of liberating beings, planning commenced for a daring escape to India.

The plan involved enormous risk. The Chinese had allowed disciples to rebuild Tsurphu, but from the beginning had also instituted security measures to keep the Karmapa and monks under state control.  Security guards were constantly outside the door of any room he occupied. He was forbidden to leave the monastery unless he secured permission from a government administrator. His mail and foreign visitors were monitored by security agencies. Reportedly, some monks at the monastery were paid to report suspicious activities to the authorities, and there were undoubtedly fully qualified intelligence agents amidst the monastic population.

As the Karmapa got older, Beijing increased security and tightened the restrictions on the Karmapa's movement. Still, things were not impossible. He was, after all, the Karmapa.

At the end of September, 1999, His Holiness directed a very close disciple to make plans for His Holiness to escape Tsurphu before Losar, February 5th. This disciple took two other close disciples of the Karmapa into his confidence, and the three formed a Karmapa escape team, swearing an oath together to tell absolutely no one of their plans. Had the plan to escape been discovered, the participants faced certain arrest. The Karmapa himself could be arrested, or at a minimum subjected to round-the-clock security, which could forever end whatever small opportunity he had remaining to evade his watchers.

Over the next two months, the three monks scouted different escape route options. Tsurphu is located about 40 miles northwest of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The closest border exit point was 200 miles distant. Crossing at that point would subsequently require the Karmapa to cross over a glacier-covered pass near Mount Everest. Another option was to cross into Mustang, which involved traveling over 400 miles inside Tibet, then traveling through Mustang and somehow crossing over the Annapurna mountain range at its northwestern edge.

The latter exit point was much further away, but it had some advantages. Mustang was a traditional location of many Kagyu monasteries, and less than two hours over the China-Nepal border was Lo Manthang, a village located at the top of the Kali Gandaki river valley. The Kali Gandaki valley area north of Kagbeni--the traditional area known as Mustang--has been opened by special permit for trekkers since 1992, and below Kagbeni, at the southern end of the valley, was the western leg of Nepal's famed Annapurna trekking circuit, and modern travel facilities

Under Chinese law, Tibetans did not need a visa to go to Mustang, and could enter by permit if they could show a valid business purpose. Two of the Karmapa's escape planning team did obtain permits in December, in anticipation of the escape, and went into Mustang to do some scouting. They brought back photos of the area for the Karmapa to review.

The Mustang route was decided on, and preparations were completed just before the western New Year. On December 28, 1999, the first stage in the plan sprang to life, a three-prong strategy to get the Karmapa outside the front gate of the monastery undetected.

One member of the escape team had made arrangements earlier to leave for a business trip. After picking up provisions for a 15 day journey, on December 28th he left with another driver, in a taxi. They headed towards Lhasa, where they were dropped off on the main highway near the Tholung River, closer to Lhasa. There they waited.

Simultaneously, a senior lama who also was a member of the escape planning team, prepared to leave on a fundraising trip in western Tibet. The trip had been earlier announced and approved. For this lama's journey, the monastery had acquired a new Mitsubishi S.U.V., to sensibly replace an old truck that had formerly been used for fundraising. It was time for a new car, and neither the fundraising trip or vehicle purchase raised any suspicions. The lama chose to leave for his trip on December 28. He waited outside the monastery gate, purportedly for his driver. In actuality, the Mitsubishi was close by, with the driver waiting at the wheel.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the monastery other than the escape team and the cook and attendant for the retreat, two additional members of the traveling party on "the fundraising trip" were to be the Karmapa and his elder teacher. Both drivers for the escape were told of the plan only on the 28th, when the three-prong initiating strategy was underway.

The third prong of the meticulously planned escape had begun a few days earlier, when the Karmapa had announced he was going into a solitary retreat for eight days. In such circumstances, his security guards would routinely wait outside the retreat quarters. They would not expect to physically see the Karmapa for the duration of the retreat. Only his cook and attendant would see him each day. This was a not uncommon occurrence.

The Great Escape 

Darkness came late to Tsurphu, but by zero hour--December 28, 1999, 22:30 hours--it was night. While the rest of the world prepared to celebrate the new millennium in traditional ways, the Karmapa prepared a different type of activity.

The Karmapa rapidly changed from his monk's habit into brown trousers, a down jacket, a hat and a scarf. The third member of the escape planning team entered the room, his elder teacher, also ready to leave. They opened the window and the Karmapa and his teacher carefully climbed out, then worked their way onto the roof of the adjoining Mahakala shrine. The party edged their way to the end of the roof, with the aim of making a short drop at the low point of the roof into the courtyard unobserved. The night was freezing, and the remaining monks at Tsurphu should have been preoccupied with activities inside. It was critical that no one saw the two figures leaving the monastery, for disaster would have been the result of recognition.

Down in the courtyard, the "fundraising-trip" member of the team spotted something that would make one's heart leap into one's throat: another monk stepped into the courtyard where the escaping Karmapa was headed. For all he knew, this curious monk was part of the covert Chinese surveillance apparatus. Keeping calm despite extraordinary pressure, the lama yelled out "Have you seen my driver?" The cry served as a warning to the Karmapa and his teacher, who remained out of site until the curious monk went back inside. The danger had passed.

No one else was out on that chilly night, and the Karmapa and companion dropped down the ten feet from the roof, crept to and through the courtyard and made it out the front gate unobserved. Leaping into the waiting Mitsubishi, they sped off towards Lhasa, where at the entrance to the main road they picked up the other two companions waiting at the river.


Isabel Hilton, "The Flight of the Lamas," The New York Times Magazine, March 12, 2000.

Rita Beamish, "Escape from Tibet," ABCNEWS.com, March 10, 2000.

Sudip Mazumdar and Melinda Liu, "A Buddha Busts Out," Newsweek, March 6, 2000.

Mick Brown, "Battle of the Lamas," The London Telegraph, March 4, 2000.

Nalandabodhi, "Verification Report," www.nalandabodhi.com, February 5, 2000.

Karmapa: the Sacred Prophecy (Kagyu Thubten Choling 1999)

This article is part of the contents published in Bodhi Issue 5 (Spring 2000). You can purchase this issue or subscribe to Bodhi at the Bodhi Dharma Store.


  1. Karmapa Khenno, You have undergone such hardships to guide us. We are so sorry for whatever bad things done so far due to confused untamed mind. Overall You are the Enlightened One came to this earth to guide us. Emaho........Ombenzasato, Ombenzasato, Ombenzasato. Karma


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