‘TOWARDS SUPREME ILLUMINATION’: Guru Yoga Texts by 16th Karmapa and translations by the Karmapas’ first female translator, Freda Bedi
“To attain to some understanding of Dharma, some outpouring of energy, spiritual and physical, is required on the part of the aspirant, on our own part. You are willing to take infinite pains for example to put up a complicated piece of machinery. Or to acquire wealth, position, influence. Work for the Dharma like this.” — 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje in Towards Supreme Illumination, Guru Yoga Commentary (1974), tr. Sister Palmo/ Bedi.
Gelongma Palmo [Freda Bedi]
For Tara Day today, am happy to offer an article on the extant Guru Yoga texts composed by the 16th Karmapa, including two particular works that were translated by one of his closest female disciples, British nun, Freda Bedi (Gelongma/Sister Palmo, (1911-1977)). The 16th Karmapa reported that Bedi was an emanation of Tara, who was said to be the main yidam of the 16th Karmapa. Bedi herself translated a Tara Praise dedicated to the 16th Karmapa (preserved here) and two White Tara sadhanas (one by Jamgon Kongtrul and one by Tai Situ Rinpoche, more on that in another post).
Sister Palmo/Bedi was not only extremely close to the 16th Karmapa mentally and physically, but appears to have been the first, female (oral and written) translator of the Karmapas, in their 900 year old history. Despite three biographies having been recently published, generally, not much has been said or is known about her work in this area, and there is more research to be done on her spiritual life, teachings and works.
It is hoped that this post not only helps to preserve and collate the different extant works by the 16th Karmapa, but also highlights some of the works of Freda Bedi, the translator, and their remarkable preservation by Samten (Andre) De Wet.
The Guru Yoga practice is one of the most important practices in the Vajrayana/Tantric Tibetan Buddhism, in which with longing devotion, the Guru as Buddha – with all the enlightened qualities- is supplicated, and the sacred syllables of OM, AH, HUM visualized as light emanating from their head, throat and heart
chakras. The student’s devotion activates the guru’s blessings (who is not separate from the ultimate nature, Dharmakaya) from these three vajra places, and merge with one’s own mindstream inseparable. Giving one a ‘taste’ of genuine freedom, bliss and awakening.
As part of a project to collate, translate and preserve in one place the extant works of 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje, available in English and other languages (soon to be published on this website), I recently translated one of his Guru Yogas called a Shower of Siddhis.
Including this one, there are at least four extant Guru Yoga practice teachings/texts composed by the 16th Karmapa, two of which are in the Third Volume of his Collected Works (see outline here), and two of which are oral commentaries[i]. Below is an overview and analysis of those Guru Yoga works by the 16th Karmapa, including a commentary, Towards Supreme Illumination, translated by Bedi.
Shower of Siddhis of the Profound Path of Guru Yoga[ii] is a very concise, daily Guru Yoga Practice. It can be downloaded freely from this website here. As I wrote in the intro to that translation, 16th Karmapa states it was written by him:
“At the request of Bhutanese son, Karma Tenzin and daughter, Konchog Wangmo, of the King of Bhutan, on offering gold and a katag scarf, it was composed on a virtuous day and month by the 16th holder of the name Karmapa.”
It is not totally clear where it was composed and who these people are. However, the 16th Karmapa does have a Bhutanese connection. According to some online sources, In 1967, the 16th Karmapa, accompanied by a party of ninety-five followers, visited Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, at the request of His Majesty the King. During the course of his stay in Bhutan he visited Tak Tsang, the Tiger’s Nest cave-monastery, famous for
having been visited by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). He also travelled to the Kyichu temple in Paro, there performing special rites for peace and tranquility in the world and for the preservation and propagation of the Dharma everywhere. His Royal Highness the King and Her Royal Highness the Queen Mother most generously presented the Tashi Cho Ling palace at Bumthang, together with its entire landed property, to the 16th Karmapa.”
Cover of front page of Guru Yoga text (with foreword and recitation by 17th Karmapa) The second Guru Yoga sadhana, the most common one recited, and the first Guru Yoga to be translated into English (by Bedi in 1971) is the Continuous Rain of Nectar That Nurtures the Sprouting of the Four Kayas.
It is said to have been composed by the 16th Karmapa when he was 35 years old in Tibet, on the 8th Month of the Earth-Dog Year (1959). Gerd Bausch reports in Radiant Compassion. The Life of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa[v] that:
“In July 1958 one of the rebel Khampas went to see Karmapa and asked him to compose a Guru Yoga from his enlightened mind stream which was “effective and short” for the new life circumstances. The Khampa explained that he was already too old to do more extensive practices and asked for a simple but complete
practice to purify the mistakes he had made. Yishin Norbu [[[16th Karmapa]]] honored the request and wrote a Guru Yoga, which later became very famous among Kagyü practitioners in the West. Probably, no other GuruYoga is practiced as much in the West as the meditation on the 16th Karmapa.”
A Shower of Ambrosia Generating the Shoot of the Four Kayas. Guru Yoga of the 16th Karmapa: Translator Unknown. KTD Publication Guru Yoga of the 16th Karmapa: A Shower of Ambrosia Generating the Shoot of the Four Kayas (namsebangdzo.com).
The Continuous Rain of Nectar that Nurtures the Sprouting of the Four Kayas: A Guru Yoga of the 16th Lord, Rigpe Dorje. Translator Eric Thaye Dorje. Available for free download here: A Guru Yoga of the 16th Lord, Rigpe Dorje • dharmaebooks.org
The Guru Yoga which Continuously Waters the Seedlings of the Four Bodies of the Buddha. Rumtek Monastery, 1971. Translation by Gelongma Palmo (Freda Bedi), Tenga Rinpoche and Ayang Rinpoche.[vi] Free download of .pdf here.
Continuous Rain of Nectar that Causes the Four Seeds of the Bodies to Germinate. Palpung Jangchub Dhargye Ling. Translator and date of publication unknown. Available for download here: 16-Karmapa-Guru-Yoga-TEXT.pdf (palpung.org.uk)
“This guru yoga of the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, is special and of particular significance because it was composed by the Sixteenth Karmapa himself, and to this day it remains as the daily guru yoga practice for many of his students. As every guru yoga related to the Karmapas, this
practice allows their students to receive the direct blessings of their lineage, purify obscurations and increase accumulations, and eventually attain the very state of the guru’s four kayas. And especially in
this e-book the lineage blessings are even more present because the Guru Yoga is recited by the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa. Note: Since it belongs to the path of secret mantra, this guru yoga, should be practiced only by people who have received the appropriate transmission and instruction from a qualified lama.”
Other than those, there are no other Guru Yoga texts in his Collected Works. However, there are two publications (in English only) of 16th Karmapa’s teachings and instructions on the Guru Yoga practice.
Seedlings of the Four Kayas is a commentary on the second Guru Yoga sadhana, said to have been orally transmitted by the 16th Karmapa in USA, 1980. Published by Buddhism Today (no.28, Fall/Winter 2011) with Tibetan translation by Ngodrup Bukar, compiled and edited by Manfred Seegers. It is in English with no Tibetan source record. As it is not available online, a .pdf of the commentary is available to download here.
Another commentary on Guru Yoga, Towards Supreme Illumination, given by 16th Karmapa in 1974, translated by Bedi has been kindly preserved and published by Andre de Wet on his website, see here: Karmapa (luxlapis.co.za).
“This short but profound article on meditation was composed by His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa on the eve of his departure from India, on his first visit to the West, and it is offered to the world at the instance of William Stucky, who is bringing out the journal Samata or the Blue
Pearl for His Holiness’ friend in Dharma, Baba Mukhtanandaji, of the Guru Dev Ashram in Ganeshpuri, Vajreshwari, Bombay. Composed by His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa in the Monastery wreathed in a Thousand Rays of Rainbow Light, which we call Rumtek, the [[Dharma
Chakra Centre]] of Sikkim, August, 1974. Translated by Gelongma Khechog Palmo, helped by Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche. it is said to have been given by 16th Karmapa at Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim, August 1974.”
The Polish follower who informed me about the existence of this text, told me that it was made up of two parts divided by horizontal line of dots, written by the 16th Karmapa in two different places and times. The upper part was said to be written by the Karmapa in India, on the eve of his first world travel in 1974. The bottom part was written in Rumtek, some time earlier[vii]. I have no way of checking this at the moment.
The commentary itself is short, with a profound (yet accessible) description of the nature of relative and ultimate bodhicitta, the importance of compassion, the practice of Guru Yoga and the Ultimate state, nature of mind, free of concepts and clinging. It opens with the following powerful and profound words of 16th Karmapa:
If we could put Dharma in its most essential form we can say it is the teaching of the Buddha that brings liberation from ignorance, and cleans away the poisons of the mind, voice and body. That is what this profound yet simple word Dharma signifies.
To attain to some understanding of Dharma, some outpouring of energy spiritual and physical is required on the part of the aspirant, on our own part. You are willing to take infinite pains for example to put up a complicated piece of machinery. Or to acquire wealth, position, influence. Work for the Dharma like this.
heeding the secret inner Instructions), and thirdly the silent meditation practice of looking into the mind. The combination of these three brings us to the Mahasukha or inexpressibly great happiness of the Buddhas.”
Life and Biographies
In terms of Bedi’s life and connection with 16th Karmapa, three books have recently been published 1) The Spiritual Odyssey of Freda Bedi: England, India, Burma, Sikkim & Beyond. Naomi Levine (Shang Shung Editions, 2017) and 2) The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi, Vicki Mackenzie (Shambhala, 2017) and 3) The
Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi Andrew Whitehead (2019) and 4) Lady of Realisation: A Spiritual Memoir Sheila Fugard (Balboa Press, 2012 and available to read here). According to Levine:
“Freda Bedi was the first English woman to voluntarily enter prison as a freedom fighter under Mohandas Gandhi for Indian independence. She became a close friend of Nehru, the first Prime Minister and his only
daughter Indira and was appointed Social Welfare Advisor as the Tibetans flooded the borders of India escaping from the Chinese in 1959. On meeting the Sixteenth Karmapa, the renowned hierarch of the Karma Kagyu tradition, Freda embraced Tibetan Buddhism and became the Karmapa’s chela or heart disciple.”
Mackenzie explains in a recent interview : “She established the first nunnery in exile. She really, really believed in the equality of women. In fact, in the exile community, the nuns got their first nunnery, Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling, before the monks got their first monastery. And it’s still going. On a personal note
the sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje encouraged her to become the first fully-ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun of any nationality. It was yet another historical milestone she clocked up. She was the first gelongma, which helped pave the way. Tenzin Palmo followed and so did all the others. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
”She was almost always in retreat, very close to God, to Buddha, to the Twenty-One Taras, and she was closest to Karmapa. There was total spiritual unanimity between them. If she suggested something, it happened. They just clicked spiritually. He was spiritually above her, she was a little below.” (Chapter 8, Levine (2018)).
“She [Bedi] persuaded the sixteenth Karmapa to go on his first tours to Europe and America. She did that personally, because she was his close disciple, living in a room just beneath his in Rumtek, and he listened to her. She said to him, “The West definitely is ready, go, please, please, they are ready, give them the Dharma.” She arranged for him to meet the Pope. She went with him, organizing all the way and
acting as his intermediary…. while she was on these tours to South Africa and America, she was conducting high initiations with the permission of the Karmapa. So she must have been an extraordinary practitioner. And the Karmapa told her assistant, the nun who was with her all the time, that she was an emanation of Tara. She was doing these extraordinary empowerments. Her explanations were exceptionally profound and very clear….
And her devotion to the sixteenth Karmapa was absolute. She didn’t have to learn guru devotion. Her first meeting with him was remarkable. While she was working with the Tibetan refugees, they told her she must go and meet the Karmapa, who had just arrived. It was a long journey on horseback, and she didn’t really know
who he was. But she trekked up to see if she could help him. And he revealed himself to her as the Buddha. He was instantly her heart guru. Her devotion to him was so absolute that it annoyed her daughter, who was brought up by her mother to be an independent woman. “Whatever are you doing obeying everything he says? I thought you were an intelligent, liberated woman!” That was her daughter’s view.”
Bedi’s Collected Works and their preservation by Samten De Wet
Samten de Wet with Sister Palmo/Bedi in Milan, Italy 1975. Image courtesy of De Wet. Sister Palmo/Bedi was also one of the first female Tibetan Buddhist Dharma translators in the history of the Karmapas and Tibetan Buddhism (the only other one I am aware of -from that era- is Katia Holmes). I
contacted Mackenzie but she told me she had not seen any translations Bedi had done by the 16th Karmapa. Mackenzie reported (ibid.): “She was an ace at languages. She just had a knack. She had studied French;
that’s what got her into Oxford. She learned Hindi and Tibetan, and she was translating texts very early on. That was one of her first jobs, which she was doing on the side. She was one of the first translators of Tibetan texts.”
Fortunately, Samten (Andre) de Wet, a former follower of the 16th Karmapa (with an interesting background and history himself), has preserved (see his website http://www.luxlapis.co.za/) all of Bedi’s translations and compositions, and helpfully compiled a complete list of them for reference and download, see here and here.
De Wet told me he has all Bedi’s translations – but not the Tibetan texts she worked from – except Green Tara, and a few others. He donated his collection of Tibetan texts he gathered in India in 1978/79 to the Kagyu Center in South Africa, where he is based. Bedi gave him the texts and various other materials,
which he published in small editions and in the various Buddhist magazines published there, such as: The Bodhisattva Path, Maitri etc. Other material is on his website. He explained that many of her translations
were also published in Canada and California by her students there – all of whom have passed away – but those were all duplicated in the Cape Town collection, which is now stored in the Sheila Fugard Buddhist Library in Nieu Bethesda.
De Wet also remarked that some people may have been ‘unkind’ and overly judgmental of Bedi’s translations:
“Certainly the translations may not stand up to academic scrutiny – but she was a poet in her own right – and she imbued the various prayers and sadhanas with great heart. After all she was very devotional in her approach – and her dedication to the Karmapa was profound. I saw them together – and the flow of energy
“Sister Palmo studied Tibetan and gained a basic knowledge of the language but not sufficient to translate. Ato Rinpoche recalls that while she picked up some facility in reading Tibetan, her ability to speak the
language was not good. Her reversionings into English were collaborative ventures. Lamas and monks helped her with the basic meaning, and then she fashioned the prayers in English bringing to bear her facility with words honed by many years of writing and journalism. Shenpen Hookham, who as Susan Rowan had come out
to volunteer at the Tilokpur nunnery and became proficient in Tibetan, harboured reservations about the authority of her renditions. ‘She would say: “oh, this translation has to be right because I had it checked by the tulkus”. And they were quite badly wrong – and it isn’t enough to say they’d been checked by the tulkus. … I suppose it was overconfidence really about how much she knew.’
In fact, one should remember that Bedi was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist Dharma translators, at a time when there was no internet, very few Tibetan-English language resources, no laptops, no pen drives and so on. For her to have translated anything, deserves the same respect and credit as other perhaps more
prominent male translators. It may be this unfair and unrealistic view of her work, as below standard, that has led biographers to focus more on her colourful life and connections. However, her pioneering Dharma translations and activity is something that should not be overlooked. Perhaps, a biography that focuses more on her translations, teachings and practices is needed.
Fires destroyed many of Bedi’s works: USA and South Africa
Sadly, as Samten De Wet told me, many of Bedi’s translations were consumed by fire in a horrific ‘accident’ that burnt down the home of her friend, Barbara Pettee and daughter, who both tragically died in the fire. De Wet said that people thought it had been caused by candles burning on a shrine. See photo of Bedi with Pettee below:
According to De Wet, Barbara Pettee had very elevated connections – political and diplomatic – her mother was possibly friends with Rose Kennedy. Pettee tape recorded all the events and activities of the 16th Karmapa’s tours, plus recordings of many of Bedi’s teachings – which have yet to be transcribed. The
cassette tapes are in the Bedi collection in India. Pettee also set up the Senator Percy link for the Karmapa. Many of the tapes in her collection also were consumed in the fire but Sheila Fugard had copies, and they converted to digital form.
Fast-forward to the present day, on 19 April 2021, in an eery ‘karmic repeating itself’ ‘coincidence’, De Wet informed me that “raging fires on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town over the past two days resulted in the tragic fire damage on the University of Cape Town’s Jagger Library. In the Special Collections of this Library are the Dr Ernst Landsberg Papers. He was the first President of Karma Rigdol
Centres founded by H.H. the 16th Karmapa and Sister Palmo. The Collection consists of correspondence between Sister Palmo, Thrangu Rinpoche and the Karmapa, but also many translations, photographs and related
material to the founding of Tibetan Buddhism in South Africa. As staff have not been allowed into the building as yet, and apparently fire doors were activated and may have protected some of the collections, it will take time to find out whether this valuable Buddhist collection was destroyed. We hope not.” This tragedy is reported here.
The collection in the library was that of Dr. Enrst Landsberg (1903-1976). Here is a link to the collection, which states that: “Dr Landsberg had a very deep interest in mysticism, symbolism, and the occult. He studied the Egyptian sacred books and translated some passages into English and German from the
hieroglyphics. He made translations from Hebrew texts into English and German and compiled glossaries of. both Sanskrit and Mahayana. Towards the end of his life he became a Buddhist and was the head of the Tibetan Buddhist group in Cape Town. He died in Cape Town in 1976.”
For more on Bedi’s life, see here and the Further Reading section below.
Bedi’s Tibetan Incarnation? – Jetsunma Jamyang Palmo
A note by Anila Pema Zangmo, about Bedi’s last days, has been preserved by De Wet here. It records how the day before she died, Bedi put out her finest and special dharma robes and played a tape of the 16th Karmapa, which was advice he had sent from New York.
I was fortunate to briefly meet and hear Jetsunma Jamyang Palmo (a Tibetan recognised tulku of Freda Bedi) teach in Siliguri, January 2020, at a set of empowerments and oral transmission of the Complete Works of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo given by Schechen Rabjam Rinpoche. She is unique in being one of the first Tibetan tulku incarnates of a western lama and was recognized by Sakya Trizin as Bedi’s reincarnation. She seemed very humble, compassionate and knowledgable about Dharma.
Political decision or multiple incarnations?
After publishing this post, Naomi Levine expressed her personal concern (publicly in the Comments section) that Bedi’s tulku should be recognised by the 17th Karmapa and that Jamyang Palmo was merely a political recognition. Levine also stated that Ayang Rinpoche (who was close to Bedi) said that is unlikely that Bedi would have wanted a recognised tulku in her name, she quotes:
”Reincarnation depends on what wish or dedication prayers were made in that lifetime. If one has prayed, ”Until the end of samsara, I want to help all sentient beings”, if done with strong determination, then that person can reincarnate. If one wishes not to come back anymore to samsara and wants to go to the Pure Land, then it will happen. We don’t know what she wished, whether she wished to come back or not…. If she reincarnated her work will have continued. If she has reincarnated it will have shown and people will know. But nobody requested it. She is already born, already grown up. Who knows? …She was very great, not an ordinary lady…. I believe she was a dakini. ”
Gerd Bausch, another biographer of 16th Karmapa, responded to Levine’s comments that: “Discrediting an incarnation saying she has “more to do with Kagyu politics” polarizes and create division among the Sangha. Why not just rejoice about the many reincarnations of wonderful masters?”
Andrew Whitehead says in his book: “There is no simple answer as to whether, in the view of Tibetan Buddhists, Sister Palmo has been reborn. Two high lamas have suggested that their daughters are the new incarnation. The family says it awaits a decision by the 17th Karmapa. Tenzin Palmo, another English convert to Tibetan Buddhism, has commented: ‘This may be the only occasion of a Westerner taking rebirth as a Tibetan tulku, as opposed to a Tibetan lama being reborn as a Westerner.'”
In my view, whether Jamyang Palmo is Bedi’s actual incarnation or not, I tend to agree with Bausch that such comments themselves, rather than help heal rifts, often create further misunderstandings, division and
conflict, especially as the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, is making efforts to build bridges, friendship and harmony. However, I also agree with Levine, that if anyone would know about Bedi’s tulku, it is likely to be 17th Karmapa and/or Thrangu Rinpoche, and the teachers she was closest to.
Pure View by Bedi
”When one becomes a disciple of Tantra, everything is pure because we have been empowered by the initiation of the lama: our body becomes like a Buddha body, our voice like a Buddha voice, our mind like a Buddha mind. It’s not things that change but it is the mind that changes. The mind is the forerunner of all creative things. This path is so full of beauty that it purifies the body, speech, and mind to the ultimate purity.”
Written, compiled and edited by Adele Tomlin, 20th April 2021. With special thanks to Jerzy and Samten de Wet. Copyright. If shared or re-published please cite the source.
ENDNOTES [i] I am grateful to a devout Polish follower of 16th Karmapa, who first wrote to me about the existence of these texts, and requested I collate all the 16th Karmapa’s texts as a project. Without his efforts and insistence, this work would not have happened.
[ii] Title of the text is Zab lam bla ma’i rnal ‘byor dngos grub char ‘bebs/ in the in the 3rd Volume, Collected Works of 16th Karmapa Ranjung Rigpe Dorje (gsung ‘bum/ karma pa bcu drug rang byung rig pa’i rdo rje/). Collected Works of 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje; collected and compiled by Tashi Tsering Josayma. 3 volumes; TBRC W8LS18007. Tsurphu Labrang and The Amnye Machen Institute, Dharamsala. 2016.
[iii] Title of the text is bLa may rnal ‘byor sku bzhi’i myu gu skyed byed bdud rtsi’i char rgyun ces bya ba bzhugs so. in the 3rd Volume, Collected Works of 16th Karmapa Ranjung Rigpe Dorje (gsung ‘bum/ karma pa bcu drug rang byung rig pa’i rdo rje/). Tashi Tsering Josayma. 3 volumes; TBRC W8LS18007. Tsurphu Labrang and The Amnye Machen Institute, Dharamsala. 2016.
[vi] “This Prayer-Puja was written by He who is called His Holiness Rangjung Rikpi Dorje, the Sixteenth Karmapa, at the request of Namgyal Dorje, the late Head of the Bir Settlement in the Kangra Valley in India. It was written in Tibet itself in the eighth month of the Earth Dog Year. This prayer and sadhana was translated in the Dharma Chakra Centre “the Monastery Wreathed in a Thousand Rays of Rainbow Lights” before the beginning of the Retreat of the Rains, in Rumtek, Sikkim, in the year of the Iron Pig, 1971. It is offered in devotion to His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa by his pupils and translators, the Anila Karma Khechog Palmo, the Lama Tengah Rinpoche, Vajra Lobpon of Rumtek, and Ayang Rinpoche of Bylekuppe in Mysore, South India.” From De Wet’s website, palmo.pdf (luxlapis.co.za)
[vii] The Polish follower told me that: “Editor W.Stucky ,few years ago was still alive and said to Gerd Bausch ( author of two books devoted to XVI Karmapa) that he remembers only a scene of handing him the text by Sister Palmo and reason/cause of it was Guru Muktananda’s request to 16th Karmapa to contribute
something to the newsletter which Karmapa fulfilled. In Buddhist magazines English/Polish the text was printed in two sections. The bottom part ( below dotted line ) was circulating, but the upper part I saw
only once at the beginning of the 80s in one Polish buddhist newsletter. Impression is that something strange goes on with upper part of the text , easy to notice some resistance of buddhist editors to make upper part of the text widely accessable for Kagyu followers.”