Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche was born in Rabshu in the province of Kham in eastern Tibet. He was born at sunrise on Mahakala Day, the twenty-ninth day, of the second month in the Year of the Wood Mouse, 1924. On this day, very early in the morning, Rinpoche's mother went to fetch water from the stream, carrying the full vessel of water home. Rinpoche was then born with no pain to his mother.
According to Tibetan tradition, all of these special circumstances show a very auspicious birth. Rinpoche's father was a devoted Manjushri practitioner who constantly recited the Manjushri Sutra. He would go to sleep reciting the sutra and when he woke up, he simply continued with his recitation. His practice was so strong that he was known to benefit even animals when they would die. When Rinpoche was quite young, his father taught him to read and write, as well as study and memorize Dharma texts. Rinpoche decided at a young age to follow the path of his older brothers, who were both monks. At the age of twelve he entered Thrangu Monastery in eastern Tibet.
When he was eighteen years old, Rinpoche went to Tsurphu Monastery to visit the Seat of His Holiness, the Sixteenth Karmapa and the following year Rinpoche received his gelong vows from the Eleventh Tai Situ Rinpoche at Palpung Monastery. After the gelong ordination, Rinpoche returned to Thrangu Monastery, and soon after this he joined the year-long Vairochana group retreat, special to Thrangu Monastery. By the end of the Vairochana retreat, Rinpoche was very enthusiastic to participate in the traditional three-year retreat, which he began shortly thereafter. After completing the three-year retreat, Rinpoche expressed the heartfelt wish to stay in retreat for the rest of his life; however, the Eighth Traleg Rinpoche strongly advised him to come out to receive transmissions from Kongtrul Rinpoche and to join Thrangu Rinpoche and other lamas in the newly formed shedra (monastic college) at Thrangu Monastery. Traleg Rinpoche felt that Khenpo Rinpoche had attained insight and realization in his years of retreat and that this education would be of great benefit to many students in the future.
In 1954, when Rinpoche was thirty years old and had completed his advanced training, he received the title of khenpo. For the next four years he was an attendant and tutor to Thrangu Rinpoche. They traveled together teaching, studying, and benefiting others. By the late fifties the threat of the Communist Chinese was creating a progressively more dangerous situation for the Tibetan people. In 1958 Rinpoche left Thrangu Monastery along with Thrangu Rinpoche, Zuru Tulku Rinpoche, and the three-year-old Ninth Traleg Rinpoche. After two and a half months they arrived at Tsurphu Monastery. His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, with his profound vision, was aware of the dangers, and told them they must leave immediately for Sikkim. In March 1959, the lamas left Tsurphu. The group quickly reached the border between Tibet and Bhutan then traveled to Buxador, located at the border of India and Bhutan where a refugee camp was set up by the Indian government. During this time, due to the heat and unhygienic conditions, disease spread rapidly throughout the camp, and by his eighth year there, Rinpoche had become terribly sick. In 1967, Rinpoche went to Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, the seat of His Holiness the Karmapa in India. Since his health continued to decline, His Holiness sent him to teach at Tilokpur, a nunnery in Himachael Pradesh founded by His Holiness and Sister Palmo. Rinpoche's health improved while he was in this area; however, when he returned to Rumtek, his condition worsened once again. His Holiness then sent Rinpoche to Tashi Choling Monastery in Bhutan. Unfortunately his health again grew worse, leading to a long and serious hospital stay. Upon His Holiness's return from the United States in 1975, Rinpoche returned to Rumtek. In this same year, Khenpo Rinpoche received the title of choje-lama ("superior Dharma master") from His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa. For so many years Rinpoche had been ill with tuberculosis, and now he was close to dying. He asked His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa if he could go into retreat for the rest of his life. In response His Holiness instead asked Rinpoche to go to the United States as his representative in order to establish his seat in America, to be called Karma Triyana Dharmachakra. Rinpoche was initially unable to obtain a visa due to his illness, but soon he acquired a special type of visa that enabled him to enter the United States specifically for the purpose of receiving medical treatment.
Years later, when His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa visited the United States, Rinpoche thanked him for saving his life. His Holiness responded by telling Rinpoche that if he had stayed in India he would have died. By February 1976, Rinpoche was on an airplane bound for New York City, to begin a different life as teacher of the Dharma in a culture and environment far removed from his home in eastern Tibet. When Rinpoche arrived in New York, he spent one month in the hospital receiving treatment, but it took a year for him to regain his weight and become strong and healthy again. Rinpoche gave his first teachings in New York City at what was to become the first KTC (Karma Thegsum Choling) center in the United States. Soon more centers were established, and when His Holiness visited again in 1977, the search began for a permanent site for His Holiness's seat in America. His Holiness had told Khenpo Rinpoche that he should open the new center on the auspicious day of Saga Dawa in 1978. Earlier in the year they had purchased the Mead House, located on a mountaintop in Woodstock, New York. The day Karma Triyana Dharmachakra opened was the very day (the fifteenth day of the fifth Tibetan month in 1978, May 25, 1978) that His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa had commanded Rinpoche to do so. Since this time, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche has been teaching extensively with a warmth and directness that communicates the compassionate wisdom of the Kagyu lineage. The Venerable Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche is the Abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York, the North American seat of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Rinpoche is also the retreat master at Karme Ling in upstate New York.