Story & Video: Being ordained by the 16th Karmapa

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An excerpt from Lama Shenpen’s life story book Keeping The Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories: An English Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Buddhist Lama’ about being ordained by the 16th Karmapa and her close connection with him.

“On this visit I was going to ask the Karmapa for ordination, so I wanted to do everything properly.  I wanted to make a special offering, but I had very little to give him by way of money.  I had, however, hit on the idea of offering him the precious [Japanese] drum that had been given to me in Rajgir.

At my first interview with him, I knelt before him as I offered it and watched him draw it carefully out of its cotton bag.  His eyes lit up and to my surprise he shamelessly asked me how much it cost!  I told him how I had come by it and he smiled and asked his attendant to bring him a drumstick – something more elegant than the plain wooden stick I had been using.

He listened to the instrument’s distinctive tone and was obviously pleased with it.  That evening I thought I could hear the sound of it emanating from his quarters when he was doing his evening prayers.  I hardly dared hope it was really my drum he was playing.  What an honour that would be!

Several years later when the Karmapa was on tour in the West, I noticed he had with him an unusual single-skinned hand drum with Tibetan style dragons painted on it.  It grabbed my attention of course and when I looked closely, I could discern here and there, where the paint had worn thin, the Japanese calligraphy underneath.  My drum that liberated upon hearing had been taken right round the world by the Karmapa, no less!

I had assumed that to be ordained by the Karmapa was an everyday occurrence, so I was not at all surprised when he immediately agreed to ordain me, no questions asked.  It was as if he already knew all he needed to know about me and had confidence that I would be able to live up to the vows.

I had to wait around in the ante-room to his chambers hour after hour for several days, being told all the time that the Karmapa would be with me shortly.  Every so often I would be told to go away and come back a little later and then again wait hour after hour for days on end.  It was a bit unnerving but a good test of my resolve.  Eventually, I was summoned into his presence in the upper shrine room.

After all the waiting it was all going to happen there and then, without any warning or preparation.  I was suddenly informed I should have had my new nun’s robes all ready to put on after the ceremony, but I hadn’t had any made.  Seeing this, a kindly monk said, ‘Well, anyway you had better strip down to your vest and underskirt for the first part of the ceremony.’

So there I was on the balcony at the top of the monastery, stripping down to my vest and underskirt, surrounded by a milling crowd of monks preparing to officiate at the ordination ritual.  As if this wasn’t disconcerting enough, I was then asked what I had brought as an offering and I hadn’t brought anything more than the drum I’d already given.

I later discovered that in Tibet to be ordained by the Karmapa was considered such an honour you would be expected to offer herds of yaks and sheep or something!  To save the day, someone kindly pushed a big bag of sweets into my hands as an offering so that I didn’t enter the room empty-handed.  That would have been considered very inauspicious (bad tendrel).

Keeping the Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories by Lama Shenpen Hookham
The 16th Karmapa on this high throne with Shamar Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche and Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche beside him, this was the room Lama Shenpen was ordained in on another occasion. Image from Lama Shenpen’s personal collection.

Shamar Rinpoche and some other lamas were sitting with their backs to the window in a row alongside the Karmapa.  I had to kneel in front of him, feeling rather flustered as I strained to understand what he was saying and what I was supposed to be doing.  I was unfamiliar with the words of the ordination ritual, but one of the monks was prompting me and somehow we got through the whole thing and I was successfully ordained.

It wasn’t quite what you might expect an ordination ritual to be like, but it was a miracle that it happened at all in the sense that with all his other responsibilities one wonders how the Karmapa had found the time to arrange a one-off ordination like that.  He usually gave ordination to whole batches of monks at a time.  I felt highly honoured and pleased with the special connection with the Karmapa that this had forged.”

Lama Shenpen Hookham

In the video below Lama Shenpen talks about her ordination by the 16th Karmapa and the close contact she had with her exiled Tibetan teachers, acknowledging that kind of individual teaching and contact wouldn’t have been possible if they had still been in Tibet:

More of Lama’s stories of the 16th Karmapa (including a previously unpublished photo of the Karmapa by Peter Mannox) her other teachers and her incredible spiritual journey are told in  Keeping The Dalai Lama Waiting & Other Stories: An English Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Buddhist Lama’.

Join Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at


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