Who is the Karmapa?

Jan 31, 1999

Category: Karmapa History

Helen Waterhouse
Study of Religions Department
Bath College of Higher Education
Newton Park,
Bath BA2 9BN, UK

This paper describes the dispute within the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism concerning the current identity of the seventeenth Karmapa. It considers the effect which this dispute has had on a small group of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners meeting in the city of Bath. The paper argues that the dispute, which represents a challenge to traditional authority, has highlighted the conflicting sources of authority which British Buddhist practitioners acknowledge.

This paper examines the sources of authority acknowledged by a group of Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhists who meet in the city of Bath, and the ways in which members of the group have responded to pressure on those authority choices, prompted by a challenge to a traditional source of authority.

The Karma Kagyu is a major sub group of the Kagyupa, one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. One of the major sources of authority for Tibetan Buddhism is the belief that the lineage of Buddhist understanding is preserved through the rebirth of important teachers or lamas. The head of the school, the Karmapa, was the first Tibetan Buddhist lama believed to incarnate from one life to the next through taking deliberate and recognizable rebirth in a new human body. The best known incarnate lama, the Dalai Lama, the religious and political leader of Tibet, is in his fourteenth rebirth; the Karmapa is now in his seventeenth.<1>

The question I ask in the title of this paper: who is the Karmapa? is intentionally equivocal. There are three ways in which this question may be interpreted. First there is disagreement about the current human identity of the seventeenth Karmapa, second there is ambiguity among Western practitioners about who the Karmapa is in terms of the relevance of his role as head of the Karma Kagyu school to Western practitioners and third, it is also possible to interpret this question as being one about the nature of an incarnate lama. This interpretation though not the subject of the paper to some extent underpins it. Franz Michael has claimed that the most important sanction for the authority and charisma of the lama is to be found in the notion of rebirth.<2> Much of the reason for this importance is that the reincarnate lama is thought to represent a living example of a supreme being or bodhisattva who, though enlightened, postpones his or her entry into final nirvana in order to help sentient beings. The Karmapa, like the Dalai Lama, is at one level an emanation of Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of compassion. When we overlay onto this notion of heavenly beings or embodiments of virtues the philosophical thinking of the Madhyamika, which teaches that at the ultimate level all these ideas like all other conceptualizations are not the way things really are, we can get an idea of the complexity and ambiguity of the incarnate lama's role.<3> In spite of this view (or non-view) of ultimate reality, Madhyamika philosophy also has a respect for conventional truth, and conventional truth generally tells us that in order for a system to survive it needs an organization and therefore a system of authority. As a system, Tibetan Buddhism has not only survived but thrived even under the most difficult of conditions.

In order to investigate who the Karmapa is in terms of his human identity and the relevence of his role to British practitioners, I will describe the Bath group and the current dispute within the Karma Kagyu school and then go on to analyze the authority structures which operate in this relationship, before concluding that British practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism need to negotiate a path through competing claims to authority. I shall also argue that this situation is made more complex by the need to take into account spiritual, political and economic factors when making practical decisions about individual and group practice.


The Karma Pakshi Centre is the official name for the group of practitioners who meet weekly in the city of Bath, in premises belonging to a centre of alternative medicine. Karma Pakshi was the second Karmapa incarnation (1204-1283). The group was founded in 1991 under the auspices of the Karma Kagyu school which, since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, now has its administrative seat at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, Northern India. Twenty-five years ago the sixteenth Karmapa, the head of the school and as such one of the major figures in Tibetan Buddhism, expressed a wish while visiting England that a centre should be set up in the South West. The sixteenth Karmapa died in Chicago in 1981 and the leadership of the Karma Kagyu school then passed to four regents, all incarnations of high lamas who were responsible for identifying the next Karmapa incarnation. Ten years later in 1991, one of the regents, Shamar Rinpoche, or Shamarpa as he is also known, oversaw the establishment of the Bath centre. At that time Shamarpa gave the centre the recognition of the lineage by giving it its official name, the Karma Pakshi Centre.

Although recognized by the tradition at the highest level the group was never large. For the first few months about twenty-five people met together weekly. Some of these founder members of the group already had established master-disciple relationships with one or other of the Karma Kagyu lamas operating in this country, including for example Lama Chime Rinpoche of Marpa House in Saffron Walden and Ato Rinpoche who lives in Cambridge, but they were happy to get together with other practitioners from the same school. At the instigation of Shamarpa, the group was most closely affiliated with the monastic centre Dhagpo Kagyu Ling, which is situated in the Dordogne in France. This was in spite of the fact that there were already Karma Kagyu centres in Britain, most notably perhaps Samye Ling the large and well established centre in Dumfriesshire.

Lay members took on the responsibility for the administration of the group and provided the weekly teaching. Lamas from France travelled over to teach on a regular though infrequent basis and the group gradually developed a close relationship with Lama Monlam, an English monk who was given responsibility for overseeing activity in Bath. Monlam taught members Tibetan practices and was available to help with any problems they may have encountered. When Lama Monlam was drowned in a swimming accident in September 1993 the group was thrown into some disarray because their connection with the parent monastery in France consisted solely in their relationship with Monlam. The self-appointed leaders of the group met together to decide how best to proceed.


It was at this point that the group was first forced to encounter the effects of a dispute which has been rocking the stability of the Karma Kagyu lineage at its highest level and which concerns the recognition of the seventeenth incarnation of the Karmapa.<4> It is traditional for the Karmapa to provide a letter predicting the place of his next rebirth. After the death of the sixteenth Karmapa in November 1981 more than a decade passed before a letter of prediction was found. In March 1992 one of the regents Tai Situ Rinpoche presented to the other three a letter which he claimed to have found inside a protection amulet which the sixteenth Karmapa had given him 11 months before his death. The letter was interpreted and a child quickly identified in Tibet. A second regent, Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche was killed in a car accident while on his way to Tibet to meet with the new Karmapa incarnation in April 1992. The Dalai Lama was consulted according to tradition <5> and gave his formal approval of the new incarnation through the issue of the seal of confirmation on 30 June 1992, in spite of the fact that one of the three remaining regents, Shamarpa, the lama who had instigated and named the Bath group, had publicly announced two weeks before that he had doubts about the authenticity of the prediction letter and therefore about the discovery of the seventeenth Karmapa. The disagreement between Shamarpa and the other two surviving regents and their followers developed into a bitter and violent power struggle. One of the regents, Tai Situ Rinpoche, is currently banned from India for allegedly plotting against the government and the other, Tshurphu Gyaltshap Rinpoche, is resident at Rumtek, the administrative headquarters of the tradition in Sikkim and oversees monastic activities there. Ugen Thinley Dorje, the child recognized from the prediction in Tai Situ's letter has now been officially recognized as the seventeenth Karmapa by the Karma Kagyu lineage as well as by the Dalai Lama. He was enthroned at Tshurphu monastery in Tibet in September 1992. Shamarpa continues to support a diferent child, Tenzin Chentse, a Tibetan whose place of birth has not been disclosed. Sharmapa enthroned him in a ceremony in Delhi in March 1994. Neither of the two children has so far been permitted to enter Sikkim although both parties claim that their favoured candidate will be installed there in the near future.

This struggle is highly political. Each party has accused the other of acting as a puppet of the Chinese government. This has been fuelled in part by the fact that the Chinese government has given official recognition to Tai Situ's candidate who remains in Tibet. There is some speculation that the Chinese would favour his remaining there and eventually acting as a focal point for Tibetans, thus diluting the power of the Dalai Lama inside Tibet.<6> The dispute has also resulted in physical violence between the two camps, both at Rumtek and in Delhi. At Rumtek monastery there is a permanent and high profile presence of military personnel, placed there by the Indian government in August 1993 in order to prevent further fighting among monks from the opposing camps. (Or, if we are to believe the reports, among mercenaries disguised as monks.) Fighting threatened to break out again in August 1995 when Shamarpa's followers attempted to re-enter the monastery which they had been forced to flee in 1993. The ritual implements belonging to the Karmapa are locked away and closely guarded in his quarters at Rumtek under the protection of the Karmapa Charitable Trust. Of particular significance is the legendary black hat, the possession of which along with other treasures would have significant symbolic and financial consequences for either party.<7>

Shamarpa has claimed that his candidate does not need the approval of the Dalai Lama and that he will not seek it since this is a spiritual and not a political matter.<8> The monks who support Shamarpa are small in number in India and much of his support appears to come from outside, particularly from Germany where his loyal disciple the Dane Ole Nydal is influential. Travelling in Sikkim in early 1995 it was my impression that Sikkimese support for Tai Situ's candidate is strong. For example there are photographs of the child in many of the Kagyupa and Nyingmapa monasteries.

Although many British Buddhist practitioners have told me that they would like to keep away altogether from what is often referred to disparagingly as 'Buddhist politics' this is not an option for those who are responsible for the continuity of the lineage. Geoffrey Samuel has shown that rebirth lineages do indeed carry considerable political power. From the outset, the process of recognizing incarnate lamas as young children (trulku) unified spiritual, political and economic structures in Tibet.<9> Because China has annexed Tibet, Tibetan Buddhist administrations are now divided by political conflict external to religious structures and under these circumstances the incarnate lamas represent a primary focus for both religious and political authority for Tibetans living in exile or under Chinese occupation. One answer to the question in my title therefore is that it is not clear who the Karmapa is. He may be one or other, or indeed both, of two boys.


I will turn now to the second meaning of my question; who is the Karmapa for British practitioners, in terms of his role as representative of a system of continuous teaching through an uninterrupted lineage? Because Monlam, the teacher of the Bath group had been pivotal in the group's development, members were at first protected from events taking place within the lineage elsewhere. There had been no need for a close relationship to develop between Bath and Dhagpo Kagyu Ling, the French monastery or any other Karma Kagyu centre and therefore no need for Bath group members to have opinions about the lineage at its top level, or to face the consequences of the crisis. The current leader of the group explained Monlam's role:

"...because he was English; because he came to England quite a lot; because of his way, there was never any real need to consider these things but in the same way we never really exactly established what our position was because he was so strong and we could get anybody coming in and talking because he was always the central point. He could always handle it all. That was his way. So there was no problem. But once he went the whole thing kind of fell apart and people were searching around for direction."

After Monlam's death in 1993 the Bath group was forced to make very practical decisions about its future. Members were presented with three broad options. One was to continue their links with the monastery in France, thereby furthering their relationship with people known to be loyal to Shamarpa. This option was in keeping with indigenous Tibetan practice since the group was already connected to a monastery in the Shamarpa lineage. The second option was to affiliate instead with Samye Ling where the presiding lamas support the officially recognized candidate, thereby aligning themselves with the British and the majority of the Tibetan Karma Kagyu community. Or thirdly, they could become independent of both monasteries and invite teachers from other centres on an informal basis. The third option was rejected on the grounds that without consistent teaching individuals would be unlikely to make any progress in their practice and the group would become too much like another Bath Buddhist group which is eclectic and accepts teachers from Tibetan, Theravadin and Zen schools.

Although an approach was made to Samye Ling about links with the community there, a decisive factor in the decision making process was that soon after Monlam's death the group received a prearranged visit from Lama Rinchen, an English woman who oversees the nuns' retreat at the French monastery. Bath group members describe Rinchen as a very strong woman with a sharp intellect and an ability to present Buddhist teachings in a powerful and clear fashion. She was characteristically direct and persuasive. She made it very clear that the group were at liberty to make their own decision about their future but that if they did not affiliate more strongly with the French monastery it would no longer guarantee to send teachers to Bath and, more significantly, the Bath group would no longer be the Karma Pakshi Centre. In other words they would forfeit the official recognition bestowed on them through the giving of their name.

Many of the group's regular attenders were present when the decision was made but there was not unanimous agreement about the best way forward. A majority decided to affiliate with Dhagpo Kagyu Ling in France, effectively isolating the Bath group from other British Karma Kagyu centres. Since that time lamas have continued to come regularly from France to teach at the centre. The only contact the group now has with Karma Kagyu teachers outside Shamarpa's lineage is with Ato Rinpoche a Tibetan Karma Kagyu lama. As far as I can tell, Ato commands universal respect in the British Karma Kagyu community. He has many disciples but has always retained his independence and has not established a centre. The existence of the group, which has never had a hard core membership above a handful of people has been tenuous since this time. The reason for this is partly that in spite of the fairly democratic group decision, individual members have responded in different ways to the crisis in the lineage.


Individual members have reacted in different ways to these events because they acknowledge different primary sources of authority for their practice. If British people are to engage in practices which are culturally alien and include for example chanting in the Tibetan language and visualizing colourful deities, they need some kind of assurance that it will be worth their while, both at the outset and as their practice develops. In other words they need to be convinced that the teaching is authentic; that it carries legitimate authority.

Authority structures for this group may be divided into two broad categories: the traditional authority of the lineage and the no less traditional authority of example and experience.


The sixteenth Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu school and in traditional terms the holder of an unbroken lineage in which the enlightened mind of the previous incarnations existed, had suggested the setting up of the centre. Members of the group therefore see themselves as the vehicle for Karmapa's hopes, and as representatives of the Karma Kagyu school. From this position they feel they are participating in a powerful tradition with the sanction of its highest authority.

Although some group members had no detailed understanding of the significance of lineage for the tradition there was always at least the feeling that they were participating in something old and established and therefore reliable. The introductory leaflet which the group produces is clear about its roots in the Tibetan tradition. Most members are unaware of and uninterested in the history of the Karma Kagyu lineage except for its living representatives and its great Indian and Tibetan founders such as Tilopa, Marpa and Milarepa who represent ideal practitioners.<10> They are therefore also unaware of disputes in the lineage which have led to splits in the past. Nonetheless, so far as the group identity is concerned the authenticity of the lineage, as an idea, is very significant.


As soon as the link with the French monastery became established, the connection was made with Lama Gendun, Monlam's teacher. Tibetan born Lama Gendun, the abbot of Dhagpo Kagyu Ling, is considered to be a highly realised being; in other words he is thought to have effectively appropriated traditional practices in order to achieve an unusual level of understanding about the way things really are, and as such is regarded as a proper person to be teaching Tibetan Buddhism to Westerners. Although the Dhagpo monks who come to teach in Bath have the respect of the group, the unifying factor, particularly important after the group lost Monlam, is that these teachers all share the same root lama and therefore give consistent teaching, teaching which has proven its effectiveness in the living enlightened example of the Dhagpo abbot.

Regardless of their skills as teachers, the monks sent from Dhagpo have all completed one or two traditional three year, three month retreats. Again this fact is normally cited in the literature advertising public talks in the city and the lamas' traditional qualification or accomplishment is part of the claim to authority which they hold, and which lay practitioners value. Although individual teachers possess, in the view of members, different degrees of charismatic authority, this seems to be of less importance than their traditional qualification to teach and the suggestion it makes that such lamas have considerable personal experience of the practices.

For the Bath group, as for the majority of British Buddhists the follower's personal experience is also a major factor. The teachings are regarded as true and effective because the practitioner's experience confirms this. If the first practice they are taught at the centre is found to be beneficial they are likely to go on and try another.


It has been hard for members of the group to ignore altogether the threat to religious authority which the dispute within the lineage has posed and they have dealt with this threat in different ways. Each of four different approaches described below has been taken by practising Bath Karma Kagyu Buddhists with whom I have spoken. They illustrate how although similar forms of authority operate for practitioners, they vary with regard to which is of primary importance. Each of these approaches represents a compromise position among the conflicting claims to authority which group members have perceived to be in operation.


For John (the names of lay informants have been changed), the dispute within the lineage is of little significance because the authority for his own practice lies primarily in its effectiveness. Transmission of the teachings is required, but once taught and put into practice the teachings are inherently powerful. To become involved in the dispute - even to consider it - is to confuse religious practice with politics and is therefore unhelpful. For a practitioner like John, what he calls the 'core' or the 'essence' of the teachings is much more important than the form which they take or any dispute which might surround them. He believes that it is beneficial to practice in a group context because a group can provide encouragement and support. He would prefer it if the Bath group had what he calls a "daddy or a mummy" figure but he also regrets that practitioners are not happy to take responsibility for themselves and their own practice, citing the view that everyone in the West has read enough about Buddhism to become enlightened, if they would only put it into practice.

John is aware of the problems within the Karma Kagyu school but for him the purity or impurity of the Karma Kagyu lineage is not an issue because it represents institutionalized religion or what he calls "cultural Buddhism". For him it is important simply that the practices he is doing will lead him to understand the nature of his own mind or at least improve the quality of his life at a profound level. The main authority he looks to therefore is his own experience of the effectiveness of the practices.


The second position has been most clearly articulated by a Belgian lama from the French monastery. He thinks that the question of authority is an important one, that practitioners must have a clear understanding of the authority which they acknowledge, and also that the dispute has challenged confidence in that authority. But for him to make decisions about supporting one or other Karmapa is not a "Buddhist way of thinking". It is his belief that in good time the true Karmapa will be recognized by the other candidate, a circumstance which he claimed has occurred before. He says:

"I believe in that. That's why I am not too worried about the situation because we just have to be patient and let the Karmapa have space to recognize himself, the one or the other. For me it is just a question of patience and tolerance."

In order to cope with the challenge to authority which this situation has brought about, the Lama has a practical solution not open to most group members. He claims that a practitioner has only to follow his own teacher:

"It is so important to have a root lama which means a lama in which you can have full confidence; a lama in which you can rely. And if you have such a relationship you follow what the lama says... For us we have somebody like Gendun Rinpoche, he is a fully realised being able to give the proper advice."

I suggested that although this may be a satisfactory answer for a practitioner thousands of miles distant from the seat of the trouble it was hardly an answer for the highest lamas of the tradition who have been confronted by the reality of the dispute, to which he replied "But the highest lamas too have their Karmapa to follow."

I am in no position to question the validity of the Lama's reply. However its alluring simplicity while clearly genuinely expressed and certainly in accord with tradition <11> does not resolve the dilemma for practitioners who have had to make decisions based on a far looser connection with a teacher than that described here and have also been obliged to make decisions with practical consequences.

In keeping with the traditional advice to check out a lama carefully over a number of years before establishing a master- disciple relationship with him or her, few of the practitioners in the Bath group have this kind of relationship. Those who have, have all loosened their ties with the Bath group as a result of the decision to remain loyal to Shamarpa's lineage. Many of those who remain have taken refuge (in Buddha Dharma and Sangha; the teacher, the teaching and the community of practitioners) with a particular lama. In other words they have made a formal commitment to the Buddhist path in the presence of a representative of the Buddhist Sangha but although they are looking for a personal teacher who could potentially become their guru, they do not yet enjoy the kind of strong faith in an individual which this position requires. If the question of authority cannot be solved until a practitioner has identified his guru, the position of lay practitioners who live and practise away from the major centres is problematic when the sources of authority which they acknowledge are challenged.


Another possible solution to this problem was offered by a group member and also by a Tibetan born Karma Kagyu lama and supporter of Shamarpa who came to teach at the Bath centre. After his public talk the lama was challenged by a monk from another Tibetan centre who asked:

Where in your mind does Karmapa live today?

He replied,

"There is no reason why Karmapa should not manifest in more forms than one. He is not Jesus. There can be thousands of Karmapas. It is only our imagination that restricts us and our language."

The questioner persisted:

"If that is so, why do so many people say you have to choose?"

and the lama replied:

"It's a Westerners' problem. They think you either are or are not."

This position could provide a solution for Western practitioners and has been cited by more than one Bath practitioner with whom I have spoken. According to the tradition the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193) also implied that this might be so.<12> This solution has however been clearly contradicted in this case by at least two statements emanating from prominent Tibetan Lamas. In a statement made in Gangtok, Sikkim on April 4 1993, Ven. Karma Gelek the secretary of the Department of Religion and Culture, Dharamsala, said:

"According to Buddhism it is even both possible and proper to have hundreds and thousands of incarnations for one lama. However, according to the unique tradition of Tibet, when it comes to identifying reincarnations and especially in the case of high lamas like the Gyalwa Karmapa, it is not possible to have more than one incarnation at a time. This is a traditionally set system, you may call it 'the way of society'."

And in a letter from the Dharma Chakra Centre in Rumtek to Shamarpa we find another clear statement:

"From the founder of the Karma Kagyu tradition, Lord Dusum Khyenpa, right up to the 16th incarnation, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, there has _never_ been the precedent of recognizing a second Karmapa at the same time." (original emphasis)

Press statements and letters originating from the opposing camps suggest that so far as they are concerned this is not being considered as an option in spite of the fact that coincident high lamas have been recognized before. For example, there are currently two recognitions of Pema Karpo the head of the Drukpa Kagyupa.<13> However convenient the 'two Karmapa solution' may seem it is unlikely to resolve the difficulty within the Karma Kagyu school in the near future. It may nevertheless continue to provide an explanatory device for Western Buddhists.


The fourth position has been assumed by Emily, one of the founding members of the group and until recently one of its chief financial backers. She has decided that she cannot continue to be associated with a group which indirectly supports Shamarpa against the other two regents and the Dalai Lama. She is in an unhappy position particularly since because of her respect for the purity of Tibetan lineages and the unique position of the Dalai Lama, this is the second Buddhist group she has felt obliged to leave. She wishes to practise with others but for her the authority of the lineage and of Tibetan Buddhism cannot be sacrificed for personal expediency. Of all the group members she is the best informed about the dispute, although most of her information is biased in favour of Tai Situ's candidate. She is also in contact with practitioners in other centres who support the official candidate. In spite of her personal practice, and her respect for Lama Gendun and his Sangha the authenticity of the Karma Pakshi group is compromised for Emily by its indirect role in supporting what she is quite clear in her own mind is the wrong side.

Since Emily was a major supporter of the group and expressed that support in financial terms her loss has been significant. Rent for the regular meeting place and the costs of bringing lamas over from France have to be met. There has never been a group policy of charging at the weekly meetings and the group has also preferred to ask discreetly for donations when lamas give public talks. This lack of rigour in extracting money from those who benefit from group activities has left a shortfall in the funding and the loss of a major contributor had the kind of practical effect on the group which could not be ignored. For a time weekly meetings had to be postponed until new arrangements could be made.

Emily knew that if she left the group there would be consequences for its continued existence and that her departure would be bound to create doubt in the mind of some of those who remained. She therefore consulted with Tai Situ who was in Britain at the time before making her decision. Her decision to speak with Tai Situ was entirely in keeping with her respect for the position of the highest lamas of the lineage.

Tai Situ sympathised with her predicament. He acknowledged that the way forward was quite clear for him because his first duty was to the preservation of the lineage, but that practitioners in her own position had been placed in very difficult situations where they were obliged to make decisions which affected those around them. Emily put to him the idea that it would be better if practitioners could keep out of politics, and he replied that the situation could not work like that because by not making a decision in favour of the true Karmapa, practitioners were effectively making a decision against him. As a result of her audience with Tai Situ Emily decided to leave the group. Emily is not the only Karma Pakshi group member to leave but probably the most significant in terms of the practical effect which her leaving has had.


This data suggests that multiple claims to authority make it necessary for the individual to find an acceptable compromise position. Several different compromise positions have been adopted by Karma Kagyu Buddhists in Bath. The challenge to the authority of the Karma Kagyu lineage has put pressure on those positions and has led to individual assessments about which authority claim should be primary thus emphasising the reflexive nature of the process.

The data also suggests that although modern Britain and traditional Tibet have relied on different structures for the resolution of problems of authority, spiritual practices cannot be separated entirely from the political and economic processes within which those practices are embedded, in either culture. Samuel has argued <14> that the reincarnate lama represents a unity of spiritual, political and economic thought and action appropriate to the cultural milieu of Tibet at the time when the system arose. Although the politics at issue so far as these Buddhists are concerned do not directly involve matters of state, we do see here an instance of the need to recognize that spiritual, political and economic factors are inevitably held in some degree of tension with each other in religious activity. The case we have looked at demonstrates how this tension has manifested itself within a challenge to religious authority.

The challenge to the Bath Karma Pakshi Centre has incorporated spiritual, political and economic elements in spite of the fact that some would like to see the spiritual as separate from the political. The economic implications existed in the withdrawal of support from the group by those for whom the spiritual and the political could not be separated, and economic difficulties have threatened the continuing existence of the group and therefore its role in making spiritual teachings available.

The recognition that spiritual, political and economic factors are linked with the question of authority has implications for the continuing development of Buddhism in Britain. The recent concern of Buddhist organizations with the question of authority <15> illustrates that it will be impossible, at least for leaders of the various groups, to ignore some of the more political elements of Buddhist practice. Splits and disagreements, however regrettable, are bound to occur as practitioners try to find the best ways to adapt Buddhist practices for British people. And since groups need to be economically viable they must be able to count on the financial support of practitioners for the practices which they offer and the ways in which they are presented.

When a practitioner aligns herself with a traditional school of Buddhism she also to some extent acknowledges the religious authority structures inherent within that school, and it will be difficult for practitioners to ignore real disagreements. Buddhism in Tibet is caught up in worldly affairs. Even within traditional Tibetan society authority structures were never as clear cut as some may wish to believe.<16> There has been a degree of tension between what Samuel calls "shamanic and clerical, yogic and monastic, old and new Tantra," <17> and these tensions have led to a dynamic system in which different kinds of teaching and authority co-exist. This has meant that Tibetans have had to make individual decisions about which lama they should follow.<18> It is due in part to the political system; the system of government,the means of supporting the monasteries and communities of practitioners, that Tibetan Buddhism has survived in its present day dynamic form. After the death of even the greatest visionary or reformer there needs to be the kind of administrative realism which ensures continuity of text and teaching and therefore the availability of the spiritual dimension to others.

It may be that it is not desirable for Western practitioners to become involved in such political manoeuvring. However it is likely that as Tibetan Buddhism continues to take root in Britain systems will need to develop, otherwise there can be no continuity from one generation to the next. While most of the leading figures active in Tibetan Buddhism in this country are of Tibetan origin they will continue to retain their understanding of the appropriate ways in which to maintain the purity and authenticity of teaching lineages. This cannot fail to influence British practitioners who may be forced increasingly to become aware of and account for elements of disunity.

Although in the terms of Buddhist philosophy Karmapa has no inherent existence, from where many people are standing it is important to know that those in positions of authority actually have authority.


1. For a description of the Karma Kagyu lineage see Douglas and White, Karmapa: the Black Hat Lama of Tibet. London, Luzac and Company, 1976.

2. Michael, Franz, Rule by Incarnation: Tibetan Buddhism and Its Role in Society and State. Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press, 1982. p.2.

3. See Samuel, G, Civilised Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. London, Smithsonian Institution, 1993, pp. 244-257 for a fuller explanation of this anomaly.

4. An article in the journal "Reincarnation" (April 1994, No.2) written by Norma Levine, a practising Karma Kagyu Buddhist and supporter of Tai Situ's candidate gives an account of the official view on these events. The account given here is also based on press cuttings, letters between the opposing camps and statements issued from Rumtek and Dharamsala.

5. Franz Michael (1982) has suggested that although internal affairs of Tibetan monasteries are traditionally governed autonomously, in most cases the Dalai Lama is responsible for making the final decision on the succession of an important incarnation.(p111)

6. I owe this information to an informant who would prefer to remain anonymous. The reluctance of several individuals to talk about these issues is indicative of the politically sensitive nature of the information.

7. See Richardson, H. E. 'The Karma-pa Sect. A Historical Note.' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. 1958, pp.139-164, for an account of the black hat legend.

8. This is not the first time the Shamarpa incarnation and the Dalai Lama and his government have been at odds with each other. In the late eighteenth century Shamarpa recognitions were banned for political reasons. There was no official rebirth between the death of the tenth incarnation in 1792 and the birth of the twelfth in 1880. (Samuel, 1993, p.271)

9. Samuel, 1993, p.496.

10. I am indebted to Dr Paul Williams for pointing out that most British Buddhists look back to the early beginnings of lineages and largely ignore the intervening centuries.

11. See for example the chapter entitled 'Meeting Spiritual Friends' in Guenther's translation of 'The Jewel Ornament of Liberation' by sGam.po.pa, one of the early figures in the Karma Kagyu lineage tree. (London: Shambhala, 1971.)

12. Douglas and White, 1976, p.36.

13. Geoffrey Samuel, personal communication 18/12/95. I am grateful to Professor Samuel for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

14. Samuel, 1993.

15. For example, the recently formed Network of Buddhist Organizations has held a conference on the subject of authority. I have been informed by sources from groups which took part that there was free and frank discussion, not all of which delegates would wish to see published.

16. For example, Samuel (1993) and Peter Bishop, Dreams of Power: Tibetan Buddhism and the Western Imagination. London: The Athlone Press, 1993.

17. Samuel, 1993, p.503.

18. Ibid., p.570.

© Internet Journal of Religion 1997



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