Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1923-1981) was born into a noble family in the kingdom of Derge, in eastern Tibet. Shortly before his birth, he disappeared from his mother's womb for one full day, and her belly became completely flat. The next day her womb filled once more, and people around her could hear the unborn child reciting the mantra of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. When he was born, the child immediately stood up and started walking, saying, "Mother! Mother! I am going!" A gentle rain and rainbows manifested outside, and the water in the shrine offering bowls turned to milk. To protect the miraculous child from harm, the family kept these events secret.
Guided by the prediction letter left by the previous Karmapa, and by visions which clearly revealed the birthplace of the new incarnation, the supreme lamas of the lineage quickly identified the child. For several years, Karmapa's parents raised him at home. At the age of seven, he proceeded to Palpung Monastery, where he received the novice ordination from the Eleventh Tai Situpa. His Holiness the Thirteenth Dalai Lama performed the "hair-cutting ceremony" in Lahsa, and named him Thubten Gelek Palzangpo. During the ceremony, His Holiness perceived the mystic hat woven of the hair of dakinis floating over the Karmapa's head. Later, in the presence of official representatives of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, India, Ladakh and China, the supreme masters of the Kagyu lineage, headed by the Eleventh Tai Situpa, enthroned Karmapa at Tsurphu Monastery. He then began his studies, receiving transmissions from the master of all the great lineages without any sectarian bias.
During his travels in eastern Tibet, Karmapa performed many miracles. On one occasion, joking with a high master about the ability to transform material reality, he drew a sword from his attendant's scabbard and easily tied the blade into a knot with his bare hands. At another time, when his traveling monastery had made camp, he was seen riding a deer high in the air along the ropes that ran from tent to tent. While crossing a frozen river, he impressed his foot in the ice, the footprint remaining visible in the water even after the ice melted in spring. It is still visible to the pilgrims who visit the site to this day.
During the Sixteenth Karmapa's lifetime, communists took control of China and gradually asserted their power over Tibet. Rangjung Rigpe Dorje made several pilgrimages to Bhutan, Nepal, and India, and leaders of those countries greeted him with great honor, offering their assistance. When war reached central Tibet, Karmapa was forced to leave his homeland and seek refuge in India. Chogyal, the King of Sikkim, offered Karmapa the choice of several sites, and Karmapa chose to build his new Dharma seat near the old Rumtek Monastery, founded by the Ninth Karmapa.
Without discrimination, Karmapa graced all he met with his presence and blessing. Often, while bestowing empowerment, he would descend the throne and administer the blessings to the assembled disciples with his own hands. He sent the lamas of his lineage throughout the world to teach wherever the Dharma was requested, and blessed more supplicants with novice and full ordination than any previous Karmapa. Directly and through others, he contributed to the establishment of innumerable communities dedicated to the practice of Buddhism. He also sponsored the reprinting of the fundamental canon of the Buddha's teachings and their commentaries, and distributed these works to monasteries and centers throughout the Himalayan region.
In 1981, after manifesting signs of illness, Karmapa left the sacred prediction letter describing the circumstances of his next rebirth with the Twelfth Tai Situ Rinpoche. He spent his final days in an American hospital in Zion, Illinois, where he told the Venerable Lama Norlha and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, "I see Tibet, and there I clearly see my father and mother of the future." Through his gentle, loving kindness and the miraculous display of freedom over ordinary physical reality, he consistently surprised and ultimately overwhelmed the doctors and nurses who attended him. For several days after his death, the region of his heart stayed warm and his skin remained supple, which, according to Tibetan Buddhism, are marks of profound realization of peace and unity.
Further miraculous signs were observed at the time of Karmapa's cremation at Rumtek in India. Relics fell unburned from the fire. Rainbows appeared in the clear sky, and many people perceived the Karmapa looking down from above. After the cremation, a small footprint was found in the ashes, pointing in the direction of Tibet.