Tibet's Kagyu Buddhists face a leadership battle

Mar 24, 1999

Category: Tai Situ Rinpoche

Early one morning in April 1992, a new BMW car raced along an open stretch of road outside the West Bengal town of Siliguri, the railhead where tea from the Darjeeling hills is sent to Calcutta auction houses. The car veered off the road and crashed into a tree, killing its driver and two passengers, a Tibetan high lama called Jamgon Kongtrul and another monk.

The accident, never fully investigated by police, remains a mystery. Although the car had been serviced the night before, some accounts said the engine was found far from the wreckage, as though its an chorage bolts had broken off.

The timing of the accident was also intriguing. For 11 years following the death in 1981 of its last leader, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, the important Rumtek monastery in India's Sikkim state had been with out a spiritual head. During that time and on the day of the crash, Kongtrul was one of four "regents" charged with running the monastery. When a hidden letter from the late Karmapa giving clues to the where abouts of his reincarnation was announced in 1992, it was Kongtrul who was tasked to follow the directions set forth. He was preparing for that undertaking when he was killed.

Popular and respected, Kongtrul was the ideal choice to lead the search party. He lived at Rumtek and had been close to the Karmapa. His death, however, prefaced a controversy that continues to this day.

The Karmapa, Rumtek's chief lama, is the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Known as the "Black Hat Lama" because of the antique ceremonial crown he wears, the Karmapa is one of Tibet's most formidable lamas. His line of incarnations predates that of both the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

When China invaded Tibet in 1959, the 16th Karmapa escaped to Bhutan, eventually settling in Sikkim, where he built a new monastery to accommodate refugee monks from Tibet. Although he had ar rived from Tibet with only a few belongings, by the time he died in 1981, the 16th Karmapa was able to provide for a monastery of more than 100 monks.

Before his death, the 16th Karmapa hid a letter with one of his close disciples, Tai Situpa, describing the place of his rebirth. But Tai Situpa did not discover the note until 1990, during which time the four la mas responsible for finding the new Karmapa concealed their lack of instruction.

When the letter was eventually found tucked in an amulet given to Tai Situpa, the clues it gave came as a puzzle in verse: In the east of the land of snow Is a country where divine thunder spontaneously blazes. In a beautiful nomad's place with the sign of a cow, The method is Dondrup and the wisdom is Lolaga. Born in the year of the one used for the earth.

Tai Situpa did not show the letter to the other three regents until March 1992. All the high lamas had busy travel schedules, and one of them, Shamarpa, was unwilling to comply with Tai Situpa's urgent request for a meeting in Rumtek.

Shamarpa's cousin, Topga Yugyal, then general secretary of Rumtek monastery, also helped to slow things. Both Shamarpa and Topga are nephews of the late 16th Karmapa, and management of Rumtek's temporal affairs rested primarily with them. When the lamas finally met on March 19, 1992, the letter was read and decoded. It was determined that the reincarnation would be discovered in eastern Tibet. The "sign of the cow" referred to the name of the place; "Method"Qa male rebus in Tibetan Buddhist symbolism Q indicated the father's name was Dondrup; and "Wis dom"Q similarly a female rebusQmeant the mother's name would be Lolaga. Finally, "the one used for the earth" was an ox.

Jamgon Kongtrul was appointed to lead the search party, but on April 26 he died in the car crash. A few days later, Shamarpa, who would have been expected to participate in the 49-day funeral rites for Kongtrul, left India for the United States, where, according to several sources in the Buddhist community, he tried to persuade Kongtrul's donors to sign their charitable trusts over to him.

Back at Rumtek, the other two regents, Tai Situpa and Gyaltsap, authorised a new Karmapa search party. Soon, a group of monks were dispatched from Tsurphu monastery in central Tibet where the first Karmapa had established a centre 800 years ago to eastern Tibet, where they found a seven-year-old nomad boy. Beyond having been born in 1985, the Year of the Ox, other signs indicated the child, now officially called Ugyen Thinlay, was the Karmapa's reincarnation.

Tai Situpa and Gyaltsap made a quick trip to New Delhi and Dharamsala to show the 16th Karmapa's prediction letter to the Dalai Lama. On June 7, the boy was confirmed as the 17th Karmapa.

The discovery of the new Karmapa was significant enough to bring the Chinese into accord with the Dalai Lama. On June 27, the Chinese Government news agency Xinhua announced that the boy was "the first reincarnated Living Buddha approved by the Chinese Government since Tibetan democratic reform in 1959." The occasion should have been a moment of great celebration at Rumtek, only it wasn't.

While Tai Situpa and Gyaltsap were in New Delhi, Shamarpa had returned to Sikkim, where Kongtrul's funeral rites were still in progress. Shamarpa called public meetings during which he questioned the authenticity of the Karmapa's letter and further disparaged the two other regents. Despite a videotape shot before Kongtrul's death showing him voicing approval of the letter, Shamarpa claimed Kongtrul had also doubted the letter, and he called for its examination by experts.

Given the intricate mechanisms of the recognition and the silence the regents had observed, Shamarpa's accusations gained credibility with some monks and lay people, particularly when reports surfaced that the new Karmapa may have been found earlier than stated.

On June 12, Tai Situpa and Gyaltsap announced the recognition of the 17th Karmapa at Rumtek. As Tai Situpa finished speaking, a dozen Indian soldiers carrying guns arrived with Shamarpa. When they attempted to enter the monastery, scuffles broke out. The meeting ended with the two lamas retreating into the monastery, and Shamarpa to his house.

The Indian army denied knowledge of the action, claiming it had not given any orders. Similarly, the Bhutan Government denied that a member of its royal family had made phone call to a junior military officer.

Enthroned at Tibet's Tsurphu monastery on September 27, the Karmapa today studies, performs rituals, blesses devotee and grants audiences to tourists. Efforts t bring him to Sikkim for a second, symbolic enthronement in India have not been successful, in part because the Chinese Q perhaps reluctant to send him abroad when he would undoubtedly meet the Dalai Lama Q have been slow to issue travel documents. They may also be concerned for his welfare given an alleged hit list that calls for his supporters to "be destroyed. A series of alleged fabrications planted in the Indian press have also aggravated the sensitive political situation between China and India over Sikkim, where the border is still disputed.

To be sure, the reasons behind Shamarpa's resistance are varied. The death of the previous Karmapa, in November 1982 had been followed in December 1982 by the sudden death of the Rumtek administrator. Topga, Shamarpa's cousin, took his place. Together with Shamarpa, already once the four regents, the two had considerable control of the monastery's assets. The would find their authority lessened were new Karmapa from a different family or sphere of influence to appear.

Moreover, some of the late Karmapa's supporters had questioned Shamarpa's handling of the Karmapa's estate. In an unprecedented action, three of the Karmapa' Bhutan monasteries were sold off, reportedly for extraordinarily low prices, and an old Mercedes, a gift to the previous Karmapa from a disciple, was taken by Topga to Bhutan for "repairs," but never returned. Disagreements among the four regents over the action of Shamarpa and Topga began as early as 1988. Shamarpa denies he has taken any decisions on the monastery's assets independent of the board of trustees, which includes the other regents an senior Sikkim officials.

Although Shamarpa signed a letter acknowledging the 17th Karmapa, he subsequently recanted it, and instead launched campaign to denigrate the lamas responsible for the recognition, including the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama's office responded with public statements and leased newspaper advertisements in India reconfirming the recognition. Privately, the Dalai Lama tried to settle the matter by calling for meeting of the three lamas, which Shamarpa refused to attend.

For his part, Shamarpa recently announced that he had discovered his own "authentic" Karmapa. In theory, there could be more than one "emanation" of a high lama existing at one time, but the Dalai Lama has made it clear that Ugyen Thinlay is the one who will carry the title and privileges.

Following that lead, most Tibetans appear to accept the enthroned 17th Karmapa. While they are not happy about the controversy, it does not surprise them. Indeed, a prophecy made by a Karmapa 500 years ago warned not only of the domination of Tibet by powerful neighbours, but of a problem regarding the succession of Karmapas stemming from an insider who will wreak havoc "by the power of his twisted aspirations."

Preventing the new Karmapa access to his hereditary treasures sealed up for nearly two years in Rumtek monastery under 24-hour police guard is inauspicious at best. Without access to the "Black Crown"from which the "Black Hat Lama's" name is derived there are likely to be people who question the 17th Karmapa's legitimacy.

There has also been speculation about why, after 40 years of recognising incarnations beyond Chinese control, the Dalai Lama acknowledged a Karmapa who was born and remains in Tibet. Was it a test case to see how Beijing would respond to the opportunity to approve a genuine in carnation? There has been speculation that Beijing approved the Tibetan-born 17th Karmapa in hopes of eventually playing him against the Dalai Lama.

As for relations between India and China, they remain unsettled over the issue of Sikkim, and, by extension, the 17th Karmapa. Whether the Chinese will let the new leader of the Kagyu Buddhists out, or whether India, whose officials may support Shamarpa, will let him in is anyone's guess even the young Karmapa's.



Karmapa Symposium

Thaye Dorje Urgyen Dorje

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