Battle of the Future Buddhas

May 2, 1999

Category: Shamarpa Rinpoche

The prize is a crown, about eight inches high, said to be woven from the hair of holy women. The stakes: assets worth $1.2 billion and the reverence of up to a million followers. The alleged weapons: forgery, lies and murder. The contenders? Two little boys, 8 and 10.

To many Westerners, the most familiar figure in contemporary Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, the point man for Tibet's aspirations to escape Chinese control. But among American Buddhists, his Gelugpa teachings are equaled in popularity by those of the related Kagyu Karma, or Black Hat, sect. Hence the consternation -- "a lot of confusion and pain," says Terry Sullivan, spokeswoman for Karma Triyana Dharma Chakra Monastery in Woodstock, New York -- that is spreading in American Buddhist circles over an ugly and odd battle for the Black Hat leadership.

The oldest of Tibetan Buddhism's four allied schools, Kagyu Karma was the first to adopt reincarnation as a means of choosing its leader, called the Karmapa. The process is not always peaceful; over the centuries, warring factions have sponsored dueling candidates, igniting bloody battles.

The current feud began in a Chicago cancer ward, with the 1981 death of a man named Ranjung Rigpe Dorje. After the 1950 occupation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China, Rigpe, the 16th Karmapa, had established a thriving exile community and engineered the school's current Western popularity. Yet he appeared to have left one task undone: the penning of the traditional poem that would help his followers find his reincarnated self -- and thus the next Karmapa.

For eight years, followers fruitlessly scoured the sect's treasure house and monastery in Rumtek, India, for clues; pressure mounted on the four high lamas acting as interim regents. Finally, a regent named Tai Situ had a brainstorm. For 13 years, he had worn a prayer amulet given to him by the late leader, which he had never opened. Now, he says, "it suddenly struck me, the message could be here!" And lo, it was; and conveniently specific too: the child would be found "to the north in the east of a land of snow ((Tibet))/ A country where divine thunder spontaneously blazes ((wordplay indicating a town))/ In a beautiful nomad's place with the sign of a cow./ The method ((father)) is Dondrub and the wisdom ((mother)) is Lolaga."

A group formed to find the child was delayed when its leader, another regent, died in the crash of his new BMW in East Bengal. But in 1992 emissaries to the Tibetan district of Lhathok located an apple-cheeked, appropriately aged boy named Ugen Thinley, son of a shepherd named Dondup and his wife Lolaga. Local lamas reported that at his birth rainbows had appeared and conch shells sounded, and a bird alighted on his father's tent and "sang a beautiful song." The joyous news was faxed to the Dalai Lama, who affirmed the choice with his own prophetic dreams.

But there were other, darker omens. A 15th century Black Hat prediction warned of a time of troubles between Karmapas Nos. 16 and 17; and that too came to pass. The nephew of the late leader, regent Kunzig Shamar, had long jousted for power with his colleagues. Shamar announced that the letter from his uncle was a forgery. At a meeting in Rumtek to resolve the matter, he arrived accompanied by a squadron of Indian guards in military array. Several people were injured in the ensuing riot.

In September 1992 Ugen Thinley was officially enthroned as the 17th Karmapa in Tibet's Tsurphu Monastery. But in New Delhi in March a defiant Shamar unveiled his own choice for the job: a bespectacled 10-year-old named Tenzin Chentse, whose parents he said were Tibetan refugees. His enthronement, Shamar announced, would take place by year's end.

His welcoming ceremony for the new contender, however, turned into a melee, and the boy spent the next few weeks under the guard of 300 monks and 400 combat-ready Europeans from a militant Buddhist school run by a Danish ex- boxer. Meanwhile, each side has hinted darkly that the other may have engineered the fatal 1992 car crash; each claims that the other may be a pawn of the Chinese. Shamar says of his rival regent, "Tai Situ is degenerate, and the people around him are like, why . . . like gangsters." Members of the opposing camp like to point out that the name of the troublemaking demon behind the mayhem in the old prediction can be read as the word "nephew."

Shamar plans to press his protege's claim under India's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom; he predicted last week, "The outcome of this issue will be two branches of Black Hat Buddhism." That may leave many believers feeling a little like Shamar's young candidate when he received visitors at the fortress-like New Delhi Karmapa Buddhist Institute two weeks ago. Throughout the meeting, the would-be spiritual leader said nothing. But his eyes darted about nervously; he occasionally gulped deep breaths; and his hands were constantly wringing in his lap.



Karmapa Symposium

Thaye Dorje Urgyen Dorje

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