Buddha's Not Smiling: by Erik D. Curren

Jul 17, 2004

Category: Book Reviews

Buddha's Not Smiling: by Erik D. Curren

You may know that there has been a lot of publishing activity in the last few years on the controversy around the recognition of the seventeenth Karmapa. The Karmapa is the first reincarnated lama of Tibet and one of Buddhism's most venerated masters. As it turns out, he is also famous enough in the West to inspire four books in English, all published in 2003 and 2004. Unfortunately, the authors of these books show a unanimity of opinion that makes me wonder if they started their books together in the same coffee klatch.

These writers seriously examine neither the claims of Thaye Dorje to be the reincarnation of the seventeenth Karmapa nor the views of his chief supporter, Shamar Rinpoche. Instead, each author assumes that Ogyen Trinley is the Karmapa because the Dalai Lama selected him in 1992 on the basis of a prediction letter given by one of the highest Karma Kagyu lamas and Shamarpa's chief rival, Tai Situ Rinpoche.

Their failure to question this premise was a serious flaw for all four books: Music in the Sky by Michelle Martin (Snow Lion, 2003), Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation by Lea Terhune (Wisdom, 2004), The Dance of 17 Lives by Mick Brown ( Bloomsbury , 2004) and Wrestling the Dragon by Gaby Naher (Rider, 2004). Readers can excuse Martin's book from high standards of evidence, since it is a straightforward hagiography of Ogyen Trinley, written in a childlike, almost fairy-tale style. But the other three titles all aim to explain the Karmapa controversy and clarify this complex issue based on the authors' personal investigations. And in this, they fail, because their approach is neither fair nor balanced.

Terhune, Brown and Naher give little heed to the serious evidence against Ogyen Trinley's claim to be the seventeenth Karmapa-particularly indications that Tai Situ's prediction letter was a forgery; historical records showing that the Dalai Lamas had no role in choosing Karmapas in the past; the violent takeover of Rumtek monastery by Ogyen Trinley's followers and the subsequent court battle for its possession; and numerous stories convincing to believers in the Himalayan Buddhist community about inauspicious events connected with Ogyen Trinley when trying to perform the duties of the Karmapa.

Erik Curren's new book Buddha's Not Smiling succeeds brilliantly where these other books fail. I must say at the outset that I was overjoyed to see this book that finally sets the record straight. This is the first book published in English outside of India since Tomek Lehnert's Rogues in Robes came out in 1998 to take seriously the position of supporters of Karmapa Thaye Dorje. And while Lehnert presented his book as a partisan "insider account," Curren's narrative is a journalistic investigation that considers evidence and claims on both sides of the issue.

Not only does Curren scrupulously examine the objections to Ogyen Trinley's claim to be Karmapa, Curren also presents the case for Karmapa Thaye Dorje. Along the way, Curren tells a rollicking tale of intrigue and strategy, devotion and deception, and compassion and ambition among Tibetan lamas and believers, all against a backdrop of geopolitical tension between nuclear-armed Asian superpowers China and India .

Curren writes that he is a student of Shamar Rinpoche, and it probably took someone with this background to be willing to re-examine the Karmapa issue after four books had declared it closed. The sad truth is that because Shamar Rinpoche has disagreed with the Dalai Lama on this issue, many writers outside of India , and particularly in the USA and the UK , have been uninterested in Shamar Rinpoche's views. Thus, they have not been able to accurately portray both sides of the Karmapa story.

Though Curren is a follower, his approach is surprisingly fair and even-handed. He writes that his research into the Karmapa issue became a kind of spiritual quest. "Four books have already come out in the last few years sympathetic to the view of [Shamar Rinpoche's] opponents," Curren writes. "These books raised many questions for me about the purity of Tibetan Buddhism. So it seemed only fair to investigate Shamar's claims and give him a chance to tell his story. Nonetheless, I have reserved the right to test Shamar's story and make judgments based on my own research."

True to his promise, Curren writes of Shamar Rinpoche more like a journalist than a devoted follower. He starts by investigating the Shamarpa himself, starting on Curren's home turf, where writers have criticized Shamar Rinpoche strongly. "Shamar's reputation in the United States has fallen very low indeed….Does Shamar deserve this criticism? Has he acted selfishly and deviously as his critics allege? Or, as he claims, has he defended the integrity of the office of the Karmapa as was the duty of the Shamarpa, at risk to his reputation and even to his personal safety? Is he fit to recognize the seventeenth Karmapa?" Curren spends much of his book trying to answer these questions by placing Shamarpa, and the Karmapa, in historical, cultural and political context.

Curren finds the origin of the Karmapa issue not in the recent rivalry of Shamarpa and Tai Situ, but in political struggles between the Karma Kagyu and the Dalai Lama's Gelug school going back five centuries. In the process, Curren busts common western myths that may seem to help Tibetans, but have ultimately caused damage to the Tibetan cause:

History belies the Shangri-La image of Tibetan lamas and their followers living together in mutual tolerance and non-violent goodwill. Indeed, the situation was quite different. Old Tibet was much more like Europe during the religious wars of the Counter-reformation than a neighborhood in Berkeley, California where synagogue, mosque, church and dharma center make cozy neighbors….For hundreds of years in Tibet, lay followers of each religious school clashed with each other for control of the government of central Tibet or rule over provincial areas. Lamas had to defend their monasteries and landholdings from supporters of the other schools as well as from the central government.

Curren then takes us back to the turbulent years in the seventeenth century when the Dalai Lama's followers overthrew the secular kings of Tibet with the help of the Mongols, installed their lama on the throne, and then began a centuries-long persecution of the Karma Kagyu and the other religious schools of Tibet .

One of this book's most valuable achievements is to show, for perhaps the first time in English, how the complex sectarian conflicts of Old Tibet followed the lamas when they fled into exile in 1959. At first, faced with the Chinese invasion in the fifties and early sixties, Tibetans experienced a period of unity and the Karmapa and Dalai Lama enjoyed a close friendship. But in exile, things changed. "Hundreds of years of habit would not die so easily," Curren writes, "and after a few months in India , competition between the administrations of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa resurfaced. The Dalai Lama and his ministers had just lost their country. In exile, they wanted to create a unified Tibetan community. To achieve this new unity, exile leaders in their new headquarters in the Indian hill-town of Dharamsala began making plans to extend their control over the five religious schools of Tibet ."

Curren's account of the United Party initiative will be shocking to many readers. The United Party was a plan run by the Dalai Lama's brother Gyalo Thondup to unite all Tibetans, regardless of their region or religious affiliation, into a coherent group able to stand together against the Chinese. The most controversial part of the plan was a scheme to combine the four Buddhist schools and the Bon religion-governed separately for more than five hundred years back in Tibet -under a single administration led by the Dalai Lama. "When word of the United Party's religious reform got out in 1964, the exiled government was unprepared for the angry opposition that leaders of the religious schools expressed. To them, this unification plan appeared as a thinly disguised scheme for the exile government to confiscate the monasteries that dozens of lamas had begun to re-establish in exile with funds they had raised themselves."

The sixteenth Karmapa led the opposition to the United Party, serving as spiritual advisor to a group of refugees from thirteen resettlement camps in India and one in Nepal-the "Fourteen Settlements" group-thus earning the enmity of the Dalai Lama's ministers in Dharamsala. Under the Karmapa's leadership, the opposition group succeeded in stopping the religious consolidation plan, and in the mid-seventies, the United Party closed up shop. But apparently ministers in Dharamsala were looking to avenge their political defeat. In 1977, an assassin claiming to be working for the Tibetan exile administration shot and killed the political head of the Fourteen Settlements, Gungthang Tsultrim. As Curren writes, "When apprehended in Kathmandu, the murderer, Amdo Rekhang Tenzin, told the Royal Nepalese Police that the Tibetan exile government had paid him three hundred thousand rupees (about thirty-five thousand dollars) to assassinate Gungthang. Even more shocking, the hit man claimed that Dharamsala offered him a larger bounty to kill the sixteenth Karmapa."

A judicious balance of original reporting and little-known but credible secondary sources makes Curren's presentation hard to refute. His discussion of the takeover of Rumtek monastery by Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches and their allies on August 2, 1993, is poignant and heart-breaking because he quotes extensively from interviews with monks ousted on that day. Here, two monks talk about what happened when they were forced by Sikkim police to surrender the keys to Rumtek's temple. Some of our readers will recognize the quote below from the 1996 International Karma Kagyu Conference in New Delhi , which Curren cites often:

The monks still refused to hand over the keys to the shrine room. The crowd grew angry and the police again stepped in. “Finally, with the help of the police officers, a few state government officials and the public, we were forced to hand over the key to the main temple,” said Omze Yeshey, the monk-official who was one of Rumtek’s omzes, or chant-masters.

Another omze, Ngedon Tenzin, told the police officers that he could get the keys but would have to go through the crowd to do so, which he was hesitant to do, since several men had threatened to beat him. “But Suren Pradhan and the other policemen assured me it would be all right and that they would protect me,” Omze Ngedon said. Suren Pradhan, well known in the local area as a bully with no respect for civil rights, was rumored to have several murders to his credit. “They insisted that I go. When I started walking towards the dining hall behind the monastery, some of the laymen and women began abusing me and beating me. They took my yellow dharma robe, tied it around my neck, threw me on the ground and dragged me along the whole way from the office outside, through the courtyard to the corner of the dining hall. While they were dragging me along, they continued to beat me.”

Curren risks losing more skeptical readers with several hard-to-believe claims, but he is apparently willing to take the risk as long as he can call on independent evidence. A 2001 documentary film made by a team of journalists from four Asian nations claims not only that Ogyen Trinley's flight from China a year earlier was a fake escape staged with the help of the Chinese administration of Tibet, but also that the young man who arrived in India in January 2000 claiming to be Ogyen Trinley was actually a different boy than the one who was enthroned eight years earlier at Tsurphu monastery in 1992.

According to the reporters, the original boy probably had a learning disability that prevented him from memorizing Buddhist texts, which would have disqualified him from serving as Karmapa. So, when the little boy went into a retreat during the late nineties, he was switched with another, older boy, perhaps a relative. This was the young man who came to India in 2000. And though he claimed to be fourteen, Indian doctors said he was probably a decade older. Again, this would have disqualified the young man from serving as the seventeenth Karmapa; it would have meant that he was born before the death of the sixteenth Karmapa in 1981, and therefore could not be his reincarnation.

Curren is clearly uncomfortable with mystical signs and portents, and he fails to mention the many instances where bad omens accompanied Ogyen Trinley at public events, such as when he first went to Bodh Gaya or when he attempted to hold initiation ceremonies in Ladakh. At times, Curren even retails serious criticisms of Shamar Rinpoche, claiming that some Karma Kagyu followers appeared to feel that Shamar as too slow-moving and too tied to tradition, making him unfit to lead the Karmapa's school in the new, world of exile, dynamic and dangerous. Perhaps Curren over-simplifies this complex Buddhist master by referring to him as "the traditionalist," and his book certainly fails to do justice to the efforts of Shamar Rinpoche to modernize monastic management and the teaching of Buddhism.

But Curren makes up for these minor sins by providing Shamarpa a chance to tell his story in his own words. His book quotes generously from the Karma Kagyu leader, as in this instance, when Curren first introduces Shamarpa: “I believe that the Karma Kagyu should be able to choose its own spiritual leader in the traditional way,” Shamar told me. “Ogyen Trinley was not chosen in the traditional way, but through political interference from the Tibetan exile government, the government of China and many others. All the other religious schools of Tibet are able to choose their leaders on their own. Why can’t we choose ours? His Holiness Dalai Lama is putting politics before religion in this case.

“Because his devotees in foreign countries are not in the habit of questioning his actions, they blindly support His Holiness Dalai Lama in this case. I call such followers ‘package believers.’ They follow the Dalai Lama because he is a Buddhist teacher and leader of Tibetans, so that is all they need to know. They just accept the whole package without investigating for themselves whether what His Holiness does is really right in this case. For example, if I had a house, and the Dalai Lama wanted to take it for himself, these package believers among his devotees would say that I am wrong to protect my property or even to complain, and that he is right to take it.

“I understand when Tibetans feel this way; their livelihood may depend on being on good terms with the Tibetan exile administration in India. Maybe they would lose their job if they questioned the Dalai Lama’s right to choose the Karmapa. But for people around the world, this is an unhealthy development in Buddhism. If one man is so admired around the world that he can do anything he wants without fair scrutiny, then he is effectively a dictator. There is no oversight. And, if the Karma Kagyu school cannot choose its own leader, does this set a precedent for the other religious schools of Tibet? Will the Dalai Lama choose their leaders too?

“Dharma is about thinking for yourself. It is not about automatically following a teacher in all things, no matter how respected that teacher may be. More than anyone else, Buddhists should respect other people’s rights—their human rights and their religious freedom.”

Finally, Curren also tells the story of Karmapa Thaye Dorje, from his precocious childhood in Lhasa to the escape from China that the boy saw as a vacation trip, to the violent attack on the welcome ceremony organized for the child when he arrived in India in 1994. "I simply didn't know what was going on," Curren quotes His Holiness saying about the attack on the Karmapa Institute in New Delhi . "I just thought there were so many visitors that they were trying to crowd in to see me. It's like that in Tibet . People see a rinpoche once or twice in their lifetimes and they just have to push their way into to get a blessing, it's their only chance. So there are many crowds like this at special ceremonies, people just barge in. Later, when the lamas put me behind the throne, I didn't really understand why."

Since Curren's portrait of Karmapa is limited to broad brush strokes and a handful of well painted scenes, we must wait for a future book to do justice to the life and teachings of this young man who has done more at age twenty-two than most of us accomplish in our whole lives. Yet, Curren's intimate approach humanizes the young lama while hinting at the qualities that have given hundreds of thousands of his followers worldwide confidence that Thaye Dorje is a great bodhisattva and the reincarnation of the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa, the sixteenth Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, and all the Karmapas in between.

For newcomers to the Karmapa issue or Tibetan Buddhism, Curren offers drama and suspense. His first chapter, "Bayonets to Rumtek," begins in the middle of the whirlwind at Rumtek in August 1993: "This story begins with a violent attack on a monastery….Government officials, soldiers and police enter the cloister. The officials demand the keys to the main temple, with its huge Buddha statue, a thousand smaller statues, and images of saints and sages painted by the great masters of centuries past. A mob of hundreds of angry local people shouts at the monks. Women beat the monks and try to pull off their red and yellow robes. Police and local bullies herd the monks into the monastery kitchen. There, the bullies and police line the monks up and force them to hold large knives. The police shoot photographs to create a bogus criminal file for each monk." The book also contains a helpful chronology of the Karmapas and glossary of Buddhist terms.

And for those who have followed the Karmapa issue for years, the book is peppered with ample footnotes and blessed with an appendix containing essential documents, along the lines of an earlier publication by students of Shamar Rinpoche, the Karmapa Papers. But Curren's use of documents is more selective and up-to-date. Curren includes the analysis of Situ's prediction letter from the Karmapa Papers , as well as a chart of the sixteen Karmapas listing which lamas recognized each one (there are no Dalai Lamas on the list, but there are six Shamars and four Situs), and the text of the Indian Supreme Court's historic 2004 decision on the case for possession of Rumtek monastery. To newcomers, the terse decision may be anti-climactic: "We see no reason to interfere. The Special Leave Petition is dismissed." But to those who have followed the efforts of the Karmapa Trust to regain the monastery of the Karmapa's, the words of the court are full of meaning and of hope that the sixteenth Karmapa's monks may soon return to the home from which they were evicted more than twelve years ago.

This book is a must-read for anyone familiar with the Karmapa issue and should be mind-opening for anyone who cares about the impact of Tibetan Buddhism on the world today.

By Lama Karma Wangchuk



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