Within the ranks of Kagyu Buddhists who practice the methods passed down from Tilopa and the great Mahasiddhas, none would disagree to the key importance of the power held by the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. His death in Chicago in 1981 deeply affected all who had a connection to him. As the lineage lama of the Kagyus (the hearing lineage of secret oral instructions) and the one holding all the Kagyu transmissions for reaching enlightenment, there had been great expectancy and longing to identify his reincarnation.
Many are already aware that a huge conflict has arisen out of the search to identify Karmapa's 17th incarnation. Today there are two officially proclaimed 17th Karmapas. The story of how Karmapa Thaye Dorje was recognized has been outlined in Buddhism Today No. 2. The events leading to the enthronement of the other candidate, Trinley Dorje, are explained in the following article. A great deal of whitewash has been flung around as a means to establish this candidate on his throne. It is the intention of this article to scrub through this veneer which presently obscures the truth for many.
The phenomenon of the conscious rebirth started with Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa in the 12th century. The tradition grew stronger over the centuries to the point where there were approximately 1000 different lines of reincarnations in Tibet. Another example of such reincarnate teachers is the well known line of Dalai Lamas. Traditionally, there are three means by which incarnations are identified: a lama leaves instructions on how to find him, which is a method virtually unique to the Karmapas; a lama of high realization is consulted on how to find an incarnation; or a method of invoking the Dharma protectors is used. Most, but not all of the Karmapas left written or oral instructions on how to find their next incarnation. Only the 9th, 10th, 12th, and 14th Karmapas did not leave instructions. However, all the Karmapas have proclaimed themselves as being the Karmapa upon their birth. After being checked by high lamas of the lineage, they were confirmed.
For several years, those thought to be responsible for finding the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa were apparently left without instructions. Over time this led to turmoil within the Kagyu lineage. It was assumed that those believed to be holding the mantle of Karmapa's spiritual power, Shamar Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, and Gyaltsap Rinpoche, all renowned Kagyu lamas, would shoulder the task of finding and recognizing his reincarnation. However, trouble was brewing even before the funeral of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa was over. During the cremation at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, a miraculous event occurred which is common only to the very highest of accomplished Buddhist yogis. Under a cloudless blue sky bearing a circular rainbow around the sun, Karmapa's heart rolled from the flames to the edge of the cremation stupa. It appeared as a fiery ball of electric blue-black material where, upon the advice of Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche, it was retrieved. Karmapa's eyes and tongue were also found unburned by the flames and they too were saved. Traditionally, such an occurrence indicates that body, speech and mind aspects have come together to be preserved as timeless relics, imparting intense enlightened transmission and blessing to all beings in the future. Such an event also occurred during the funeral of Gampopa and the 2nd Karmapa.
Those who witnessed the 16th Karmapa's cremation, saw the heart come out to the spot where Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche, Drongu Nondrub, Namkai Dorje, Kurt Nubling and Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche, among others, were stationed. Many people were therefore quite surprised that Tai Situ Rinpoche proclaimed at a meeting after the cremation, that the heart had "fallen in his lap. " Later, in 1992, such a claim became the basis Situ Rinpoche gave as to why he was the one person with the authority to recognize the reincarnation of the 17th Karmapa. Situ Rinpoche had in fact taken the heart from those who had retrieved it and took it to his own room after the cremation. Later, many gold and silver pearls, Buddha images and other precious substances were also found among Karmapa's relics. Since then a fantastic golden stupa has been built to contain Karmapa's heart, which is kept at Rumtek monastery.
Over the centuries large organizations have grown up around the various tulkus (recognized reincarnates). Today, many of these groups have taken up the causes in support of their lamas in much the same way as supporters of modern day politicians. In regards to finding the 17th Karmapa, it would be seen in the eyes of such an organization's supporters as extremely prestigious and important that their regent be the discoverer and lineage holder of the great Buddha, the Gyalwa Karmapa.
It was amid an atmosphere of pressure and intrigue that the search for Karmapa's incarnation intensified as year followed year without any announcement of his finding. Such were the demands on them that the four regents agreed in 1986, to publicly tell an untrue story, saying that they did, in fact, have Karmapa's prediction letter. This was to send the message that at least the Rinpoches had some idea about Karmapa's instructions and would appease the people's incessant demands to know. Because of the intense atmosphere of rumor and speculation, Shamar Rinpoche sent a letter in 1986 to all lamas and monasteries reasserting the fact that Karmapa would clearly reveal himself at the appropriate time. Although the four regents were attempting to find Karmapa's incarnation, much of their time was spent traveling and teaching their own students. The regents seemed ill-disposed to spend time with each other or function in any way as a unified body. Because of differing views, interests and ambitions they virtually never met together. Actually, in Situpa's case it appears he actively avoided having to meet Shamar Rinpoche altogether.
It is interesting to note that the previous incarnation of Tai Situpa, along with the second Jamgon Kongtrul, had been the main teacher of the 16th Karmapa. Early in 1990 something very strange was stirring in Situ's camp. It was announced by Situ Rinpoche, during a meeting at Karmapa's seat in Rumtek monastery, that the prediction letter of the 16th Karmapa had been found. This meeting occurred on March 19, 1992. Situ Rinpoche explained to the other regents that in 1981 while in New Delhi, Karmapa had given him a protector chakra wrapped inside a yellow brocade. Situ explained that Karmapa had told him that this pouch would be important in the future. He had worn the protector for years around his neck and later moved it to his waist. Situ apparently finally examined the chakra early in 1990 and discovered within it Karmapa's prediction letter. When questioned as to why he had not shown the letter to the other regents at various previous meetings held since 1990, Situ explained that these meetings had occurred in places where it was inappropriate to show such a letter. He claimed that out of respect, upon it being shown to the others, the letter had to be placed in Karmapa's gau (relic box) at Rumtek. The letter Situ presented revealed the description of a Karmapa's birth place in Eastern Tibet. Also given were the exact names of his parents. Apparently, this was an enormous breakthrough after so many years of speculation, which Situ characterized as "good news, similar to the joyful cries of peacocks." The ensuing enthusiasm was short lived however, when Shamar Rinpoche immediately questioned the letter's authenticity. Upon closer examination, the letter was shown to be quite sweat stained from years of being worn next to Situpa's skin. It was pointed out by Shamar Rinpoche, that the very envelope which had borne the letter so long had, somehow forgone such a sweating. Questions also arose regarding the writing style, signature and contents of the letter. In fact, it was pointed out that the writing style of the letter seemed not altogether dissimilar to that of Situ Rinpoche himself. Furthermore, the 7th line of the letter says, "He will be born in the Earth Ox year." Such a boy would thus be either 32 years old at the time of Karmapa's death or be born 26 years afterwards, according to the system of Tibetan astrology. Later, this part of the letter was amended to say, "a good year" instead of an "ox year" when being referred to by Situ's organization. Additionally, the lama named to be Karmapa's teacher was also predicted in the letter; it was Situ Rinpoche himself.
Agreeing fully to support the search for this new Karmapa candidate, Shamar Rinpoche insisted that a scientific forensic test verifying its authenticity first be performed on the letter. The request was refused by Situ Rinpoche. All four regents vowed to keep absolute secrecy about the entire issue. In March 1992 it was decided that Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche would go into Tibet to personally find and check the boy in the prediction letter.
Meanwhile, Shamar Rinpoche, by now suspicious of his colleagues' motives and behavior, continued his own search for Karmapa's reincarnation. Around this time, Shamar Rinpoche and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche had consecrated a large 14 ft. high Buddha statue at Rumtek monastery. During the rituals, liquid started dripping from the statue's forehead. This was seen by everybody as an extremely bad omen. A short time later, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche died in a tragic car accident before he had a chance to go to Tibet.
Despite the agreement to tell no one, a letter from Situ's organization began to circulate almost immediately throughout Nepal announcing the search for a young Karmapa. On April 8, 1992 a search party left Tsurphu, Karmapa's ancient seat in now Chinese occupied Tibet, led by a lama Tomo, to find the new incarnation. Strangely enough, this was happening weeks before Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche was killed. It was he alone who had been officially designated as the person to find and check the boy. On July 13, 1992, Orgyen Trinley, the son of poor nomadic parents from Lhathok, Bakor in Eastern Tibet, was brought to Tsurphu as an official reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa. Here, at Tsurphu, Gyaltsap and Situ Rinpoches received the young boy with great ceremony. He was given the name, Pal Khyabdak Ogyen Gyalway Nyugu Drodul Orgyen Trinley Tsal Chokle Nampar Gyalway De. This name had been written in a prophecy regarding the 17th Karmapa by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava.) It was later carelessly disclosed by Lopon Dechen Rinpoche of Tsurphu, that Situ Rinpoche already had contact with this same boy well before any search party was ever sent. The Chinese never advertised that the young candidate's father was the local mole hunter of the valley where they lived. In Tibet, the cast of slaughterers are held in lowest regard and little would be left of the "incarnate's" reputation were this to become public knowledge.
Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama had been contacted and requested to release a letter verifying and proclaiming Orgyen Trinley as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa. The Dalai Lama conceded to do this specifically on the basis of having been convinced by Gyaltsap and Situ Rinpoches that all the Kagyu lamas were in full agreement in the matter. This simply was not the case. Letters from associates of Situ Rinpoche quickly circulated announcing the 17th Karmapa's finding, citing the Dalai Lama's confirmation, and claiming that all disagreements had been cleared away. It should be pointed out that historically the Dalai Lama has no influence or authority in confirming a Karmapa incarnation. Meanwhile, a massive campaign had been carried out to garner the signatures of all those who would support the Karmapa known as "Orgyen Trinley." Most Kagyu lamas signed this petition.
On June 9, 1992, Shamar Rinpoche gave a talk at Rumtek advising all people to stay out of politics regarding Karmapa's rebirth and cited his knowledge about a certain trustworthy person, who he secretly knew to be holding the 16th Karmapa's instructions. He said that this person had hinted to both him and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche regarding the Karmapa issue, and he said that if this person's information proved not to be true, he would promise to resign his position as regent. He explained that he had not mentioned this before for fear of causing obstacles in the heretofore fervent and politically aggressive atmosphere surrounding the search for the Karmapa.
A series of meetings had occurred in Beijing, China between Situ Rinpoche and Chinese government officials early in 1992. It was clear that Situ Rinpoche and his secretary Akong Tulku enjoyed a warm relationship with Beijing and were able to travel freely inside Tibet where virtually no other lamas could go. The Chinese government and media were widely represented on September 27, 1992 at an elaborate ceremony in Tsurphu, Tibet. Here, Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches knowing that many of their peers strongly opposed it, enthroned the boy, Orgyen Trinley, as the 17th Karmapa. Beijing enthusiastically accepted the boy as a "living Buddha," the first since they invaded Tibet in 1959. Almost no Westerners were present at the enthronement. Many stories and rumors have circulated about this boy citing miraculous events in his life. These include the appearance of three suns at his birth, rains of flowers from the sky, and his ability to leave footprints in rocks. These stories may be true. However, none of the claims have been substantiated by eye witnesses.
Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoche had proclaimed the enthronement in Tsurphu, the ancient seat of the Karmapas, as a prelude to the 17th Karmapa's arrival at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, India. Rumtek was the official seat built in 1960 by the 16th Karmapa after he had fled his homeland. Since the enthronement however, years have gone by and only a visit to Beijing to publicly proclaim his loyalty to the communist government has been allowed the boy. Actually, Rumtek monastery has been forcibly occupied by Situ Rinpoche's monks since August, 1993. Rumtek was until recently also the home of Gyaltsap Rinpoche. The 16th Karmapa's monks were evicted from Rumtek monastery and over 200 of them now live in cramped conditions in a nearby house belonging to Shamar Rinpoche. Early during the controversy one of Karmapa's monks, refusing to show confidence in the Chinese Karmapa, was murdered. Many monks were badly beaten and injured when in August, 1995 they peacefully tried to re-enter Rumtek. After being refused entry, they undertook a long hunger strike in an attempt to draw public attention to their plight.
In March,1994 in New Dheli, India, Shamar Rinpoche introduced Thaye Dorje to the free world as the authentic 17th Karmapa. Shamar Rinpoche emphasized that Thaye Dorje had been chosen on the basis of his own pronouncement of being the Karmapa since the age of three and the subsequent confirmation of his spiritual qualities. The verification of Karmapa's authenticity was done with the full agreement of the person who holds the 16th Karmapa's instructions. The identity of this person has not yet been revealed by Shamar Rinpoche. As of now, his instructions apparently prevent this person from revealing any details.
During the introduction ceremony of Karmapa Thaye Dorje at the KIBI (Karmapa International Buddhist Institute) in New Delhi, India, the same trouble makers from among Situ Rinpoche's monks and supporters who had helped usurp Rumtek monastery, made their presence known by publicly protesting, throwing rocks, shouting obscenities, and injuring many. Among practicing Buddhists, this fanatical behavior is virtually incomprehensible.
There have been two previous periods of decline in the Karma Kagyu Lineage, both brought about by external circumstances. One involved the invading Mongolian emperor, Gushri Khan who was supporting the Dalai Lama. During the time of the 10th Karmapa, the 5th Dalai Lama had become interested in forcibly converting all monasteries in Tibet to conform to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Later, during the time of the 13th Karmapa, political pressures were again brought upon the Kagyus by the powerful Gelugpa rulership of Tibet. The Sharmapa, Karmapa's closest regent and holder of the Red Crown, was accused of being a traitor. A law was passed prohibiting his future incarnation. No recognition of his official position was allowed for the next 200 years. His own monastery was forcibly converted to the Gelugpa tradition leaving only two remaining Kagyu monasteries in Tibet. The Shamarpa did continue to take rebirth though his public activity as Karmapa's regent remained unrecognized.
During this period, the other Rinpoches had secured large and growing organizations while that of the Shamarpa had commensurately dwindled. These organizations served to provide for their leaders an extensive power base both politically and economically. When viewed from a historical perspective, the political pressure from below upon the high Rinpoches becomes more understandable. In this case, especially that of Situ Rinpoche, one may speculate about the incredible pressure that was being generated for him to produce a Karmapa and assuage the demands of those clamouring to be politically bolstered through their association with him. The medieval style hierarchical pecking order, where successful candidates would sit on ever higher thrones, kept vying factions jealously jockeying to elevate their candidate's positions. The 16th Karmapa had repeatedly requested Situ Rinpoche to return to Rumtek and finish his spiritual training which he had left due to pressures from his own demanding organization. This completion of his education remained unfinished.
The present decline is the first ever created from within the lineage itself. It is impossible to gauge the original cause of the present conflict. Did the idea to create a Karmapa begin from Situ or Akong Tulku's mind, or was it wholly a Chinese concoction? Clearly, the two factions have worked together well enough to skillfully convince the majority of Kagyu Lamas to follow a fabricated Karmapa. As a consequence, the students of these teachers have been misled.
An international conference of Kagyu followers of the 16th Karmapa was convened in March, 1996 in New Delhi, India to discuss the Karmapa situation. The reason for the present controversy was summarized by Khenpo Chodrak, who said, "This problem has been created from within by individuals who claim they are holders of the doctrine of the Karma Kagyu School. It originated with involvement in politics and the desire to further one's own financial situation. What has happened is that some lamas have not remained true lamas; they have failed to live up to their status."
It is said that Karmapa always proves himself only on the basis of his spiritual ability and realization. Shamar Rinpoche explained in March 1994:
"The reincarnation of a Gyalwa Karmapa is for the sake of all sentient beings. When somebody like him comes from Nirvana into this human existence, there is no constitution which determines it. There are no rules or regulations. For his reincarnation the Karmapa doesn't need an identity card or a visa and he doesn't have to go through immigration. Everything manifests through his spiritual qualities. Sentient beings take rebirth without freedom, they have to follow their karma. When great Bodhisattvas reincarnate, it is by their own choice. All former Karmapas manifested through their abilities. The confirmation of a Karmapa comes from the spiritual aspect only, and is not linked with governments, ambassadors, immigrations or anything like that."
Never before has a Karmapa been politically chosen by either ballot or force. Money and power appear to be the direct motives behind the conflict. In 1992, after the republicans under Bush lost the election to the democrats in America, the "Most Favored Nation" status of China was once again up for contentious debate. The Dalai Lama had become a powerful figurehead in America representing his people's aspiration for freedom. The Chinese now directed their ploy to appear conciliatory toward the previously persecuted Buddhist population. Thus, by showing support of a high incarnate lama who holds the status of a Buddha, they could manipulate both the Tibetans and world opinion in their own favor. This illusion of a human rights policy turnabout became highly necessary since the Tibetans at that time were once again becoming unruly and violent. The Panchen Lama, Tibet's highest ranking recognized lama, had died and the pacifying influence he had wielded over his own people (under Chinese order) was now gone. A Karmapa controlled by Beijing was the ideal replacement. Ultimately at stake are the billions of dollars earned yearly from the sale of Chinese goods in America.
Recently, a 350-year old thanka depicting a Karmapa named "Thaye Dorje" has appeared. It was almost certainly painted by the 10th Karmapa and this may be his way of confirming himself. As the "knower of the three times"- past, present and future, it is certain that Karmapa would have foreseen the present conflict. The 10th Karmapa painted a number of famous prophetic thankas. However, this one appears to be a completely new discovery. Knowledge of this thanka's existence became known to some high lamas of the Kaygu lineage only last year. Scientific tests have yet to be performed on the painting. Below the thanka, which bears Thaye Dorje's name clearly written in gold letters, is a seated Shamarpa with a red crown. In this way Shamarpa is depicted as the lineage holder of Karmapa's transmission.
The possibility of two Karmapas coexisting has no historical precedent. This idea has been postulated by some far-reaching modern thinkers. A body of evidence strongly indicates that the prediction letter brought forward by Situ Rinpoche was fabricated largely by himself. The boy, Orgyen Trinley is an unwitting victim in a conspiracy involving some Buddhist leaders and the Chinese government who are interested in manipulating the religious faith of Tibet's native population. Since the 12th century, the Karmapas have been the leaders of the Kagyu tradition. In this way they were also the spiritual teachers of a huge section of the Tibetan people. Presently in Tibet, it would be impossible for the Karmapa to fulfill this function since the occupying Chinese government continues to exploit the people and their trust in high lamas for their own political gain.
The young Orgyen Trinley has been captured on film and video tape. He appears to have few powers of concentration and frequently seems to be either bored or irritated. In short he comes across as a confused young boy.
Lama Ole Nydahl was recognized by Karmapa as Dharma protector, specifically the protector of Kagyu lineage. From the outset Lama Ole has taken a firm and unyielding stand in this controversy and it was he who was responsible for ensuring that Karmapa Thaye Dorje was brought quickly and safely from occupied Tibet to India and the free world. In 1994 Lama Ole said:
"When the dust has settled from this whole thing, I want to tell the dear gentlemen and high lamas supporting the Chinese Karmapa that they have been complete amateurs. If there is one thing they should know, it is that out of a population of six million Tibetans, the Chinese killed one and a half million. This happened only a few years ago and even today China continues to suppress the Tibetans. The idea that they think they can do any kind of business with the Chinese is absurd! Years ago we said very clearly that should Karmapa take rebirth in Tibet, there is only one thing to do - take him out. With a big brother breathing down your back, one has no chance - and they forgot it. They made this little boy so heavy that the Indians won't have him in and the Chinese won't let him out. We told them so often and they rushed right into the jaws of the shark. I just hold my head. That is so amateurish."
Karmapa Thaye Dorje has completely escaped the situation of Chinese control and is growing in his leadership role free from all political constraints. The installment of Thaye Dorje as Karmapa has been done in accordance with Buddhist teachings. He is being educated at the KIBI and is receiving intensive training in philosophy and meditation. In this way he is preparing himself for his important function of transmitting the Buddha's teachings for the benefit of all beings.
Further irony is added to the mix when one considers the Dalai Lama's present position in relation to the Karmapa issue. His office has unequivocally endorsed the Karmapa candidate supported by the Chinese. This comes after the recent debacle involving the Chinese attempt to enthrone their own puppet Panchen Lama. In spite of the Dalai Lama's own absolute disagreement with their interference, he has chosen to support the Chinese in a situation which virtually parallels that which so recently outraged him and freedom loving people everywhere. The Dalai Lama supports the Chinese candidate although he is fully aware of the wide discrepancies in the methods employed in the recognition and proclamation of Karmapa Orgyen Trinley.
Today, the factionalizing of the long-standing Kagyu lineage divides itself strictly between Karmapa camps. The rift began from old Tibetan-grown medieval style politics and petty jealousies, which have survived, unchanged, over the centuries. It was fueled by political and spiritual hangers-on who have always hovered, satellite-like, near and around those wielding temporal and spiritual authority. In today's case, the emotional loyalties relied upon in the past are not enough to determine truth. When dealing with Buddhism, Westerners want to know and verify their teacher's honesty with certainty and not have to swallow any camels sideways. Most grew up in "belief" religions whose often corrupt underside became exposed once examined closely, revealing words and actions which often failed to coincide. Few educated Westerners seem willing to sympathize with those who would not subject a document to a forensic test when so far- reaching a conflict, confusion and painful chaos is the clear result of not doing so. Westerners have placed Tibetan Buddhists on a high pedestal, and certainly many are deservedly well-placed there. However, as in Western religions, rogue factions do permeate even the highest of Buddhist religious strata. Indeed, the cult phenomenon, where politics subtlely masquerades as spirituality, was as true in Tibetan Buddhism as it is in today's Christianity. In this case, the consequences have had an exacting, though perhaps useful toll. Blind belief in a lama, because of his esteemed title can no longer be justified. Even high lamas can be driven by the very disturbing emotions they teach others to overcome. Indeed, this all complies with the Buddha's very last teaching. The Buddha exhorted to everyone not to believe even a word he had said, just because the Buddha said it, but to check for themselves whether any of it was true or not.