The tale of two Karmapas
By Julian Gearing
Tibet and the Olympic factor
DHARMASALA, India - Karmapa Urgyen Trinley - also sometimes spelt as Orgyen
Trinley - has a term for what is holding him back from taking up his seat as
head of his Tibetan Buddhist lineage at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim -
"environmental problems". Four years after the Tibetan lama hit the world
headlines when he left his monastery in Tibet aiming for his "crown", he has
hit a brick wall.
In his private audience room in Gyuto monastery, a short distance from the
Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, the young lama prefers not to talk
about the politics that prevent him from going to the Karma Kagyu school's
exile headquarters Rumtek, saying that the process of resolving the problem
"takes time". As he speaks, Indian intelligence agents, standing a discrete
distance away, try to listen in on the conversation. Soldiers carrying assault
rifles stand guard outside.
Indian authorities are suspicious over why the first high lama to be recognized
by the Chinese communist government should want to flee Tibet. Since his
journey into exile, the lama has only been given permission by the Indian
authorities to travel on pilgrimages to holy places. And he is banned from
travelling to his goal, Rumtek, in Sikkim, a small Himalayan state under Indian
administration but claimed by China.
Urgyen Trinley's problems have just ratcheted up a notch. A bitter legal
contest over the assets of Rumtek monastery has resulted in an unfavorable
verdict. An Indian court in Sikkim ruled on September 28 that the assets of
Rumtek belong to the Karmapa Charitable Trust, set up by the late 16th Karmapa,
or head of monastery. The trustees support another claimant to the Karmapa
throne, Karmapa Thaye Dorje, whom they say has the right to take over the
monastery. Urgyen Trinley's followers, whose monks currently occupy the
premises, made an appeal on December 4 to the Supreme Court.
If one legal tussle was not enough, another has just commenced. On December 19,
the Delhi High Court issued a summons to the Dalai Lama and the Indian
government claiming as illegal the declaration of Urgyen Trinley as the 17th
Karmapa and calling for his expulsion from India. The case, filed by Lama S N
Singh, alleges that the Dalai Lama was wrong in backing the recognition of
Urgyen Trinley as the 17th Karmapa, and claims that his birth date in 1985 is
wrong, saying that medical records indicate that he is much older. In addition,
it claims the Chinese game plan is to annex Buddhist regions of the Himalaya,
and that the easiest way for the Chinese to establish a base in Sikkim is to
install their own Karmapa candidate, and China's man is Urgyen Trinley.
Although this case may prove to be more of a nuisance than a real threat, it is
another burden for the young lama.
In the tale of two boys competing for the Karmapa throne, the stakes are high.
The future of the Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist lineage is on the line. The
competition revolves around who will put on the famous Black Hat and take over
from the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpai Dorje, who died in 1981. This charismatic
lama fled Chinese oppression in Tibet in 1959 and set up Rumtek in Sikkim as
his exile seat. Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation and that some high
lamas, or tulku as they are called, come back life after life to help
others to pursue enlightenment.
It is not unusual to have two competing candidates for the position of tulku.
Over the centuries since the 3rd Karmapa started the practice of recognition -
subsequently taken up by the Dalai Lamas - competition, intrigue and murder
have on occasions beset the different Buddhist lineages. What is unusual to
have two boys separately recognized and brought up to continue a lineage - and
for this to be played out in the modern world where competing Karmapa Internet
websites struggle to put forward their case.
But more is at stake than just one Buddhist lineage. The conflict between
supporters of the two claimants to the Karmapa throne has not only thrown the
Karma Kagyu lineage, one of the four main Tibetan Buddhist schools, into
confusion and set off violence. Critics say the "Karmapa controversy" is a
threat to Tibetan Buddhism and the practice of recognizing the reincarnations
of high masters. And it has allowed the atheist Chinese authorities to put
their foot in the door. Some critics who say that Urgyen Trinley has Chinese
backing content that his flight from Tibet was made to look like an escape.
They claim that he aimed to go to Sikkim to stake a "Chinese" foothold there,
or to go and claim the Black Hat and then return to Tibet.
Sitting in Gyuto monastery, Urgyen Trinley says that he prefers not to talk
about the fact that there are two Karmapas. "Generally speaking, I follow the
Dalai Lama's advice. The Dalai Lama is very kindly helping the Karmapa cause,"
he said, referring to how the Tibetan leader has officially backed him as the
reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa. As Lama Phuntsok, an aide to the young lama,
states: "If you are a Dalai Lama follower, then you have no doubt."
That is generally true. In Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama's
Tibetan exile government, photos of the Dalai Lama holding hands with Urgyen
Trinley abound, as do stickers, books and CDs devoted to the young lama. The
media's portrayal of the young lama's heroic escape from Tibet over the
Himalayan passes into Nepal and India was a useful propaganda coup for the
exile government. One international publication nominated Urgyen Trinley as an
"Asian Hero" for his escape. Some publications even went as far as suggesting
that he could take over as the Tibetans' spiritual leader after the Dalai Lama
passes away, an idea the Tibetan leader was quick to quash.
The Dalai Lama has thrown his weight behind Urgyen Trinley, but behind the
scenes the story of how the lama was recognized is murky. After the 16th
Karmapa died of cancer in 1981, the four regents in charge of looking for his
reincarnation had trouble finding the boy who would take over. While the
Tibetan Buddhist lineages use various methods for finding the reincarnation of
a high lama, the Karmapa traditionally wrote a letter before he died indicating
where his successor would be found. Eventually in 1992 one of the regents, Tai
Situ Rinpoche, produced a letter which he said had been hidden in a talisman
given to him by the 16th Karmapa. But when regent Shamar Rinpoche saw it he
claimed it was forged, alleging the script was "100 percent Tai Situ's
Shamar, though, was in a minority. His call for a forensic test of the letter
was overridden and the search went ahead. Tai Situ brought in the Dalai Lama to
officially bless the recognition, which critics say is an unusual step as the
Dalai Lama is head of the Gelukpa Buddhist lineage, not the Karma Kagyu. What
also raised eyebrows was the involvement of the communist Chinese authorities.
In 1992, Urgyen Trinley was installed in the traditional Karmapa seat in Tibet,
Tsurphu monastery, near Lhasa, and officially declared a "Living Buddha" by the
communist authorities. Critics say that this was to set a bad precedent,
leading to the Chinese authorities appointing their own Panchen Lama, second in
line to the Tibetan leader, and a declaration that they will choose the next
Tai Situ is adamant that the letter was not forged and that his methods are
beyond reproach. "There is not such a thing as proving [his recognition]," he
said, shortly after Urgyen Trinley arrived in India. "The Karmapa is the
Karmapa. Buddha is Buddha. Dalai Lama is Dalai Lama. Christ is Christ. We are
believers." Thrangu Rinpoche, one of the main players involved in the
recognition, also backs Tai Situ's position. Speaking in his monastery in
Kathmandu recently he said: "The Dalai Lama examined the recognition letter. He
also had a dream that confirmed the reincarnation."
As for the question over the wisdom of bringing in the Chinese authorities, Tai
Situ's aide Akong Rinpoche, based in Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Scotland,
said cooperating with the Chinese was necessary, claiming that there was a need
to "legalize" the Karmapa's position in Tibet. Akong, who played a major role
in finding Urgyen Trinley in eastern Tibet, rebuffs critics who say the young
lama should have been smuggled out of Tibet in order to be free to fully
practice his religion.
Whether the recognition of Urgyen Trinley was a joyous event, as his supporters
claim, or a "spiritual coup" carried out by Tai Situ and the Dalai Lama, as
critics claim, the recognition has to be understood against the backdrop of old
world Tibetan politics. Tibetan society is autocratic and hierarchical,
especially in the Buddhist orders. Since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet after the
Lhasa Uprising in 1959, he had been trying without success to bring unity to
the Buddhist schools, bringing together his Gelukpa lineage with the Nyingma,
Sakya, Karma Kagyu and other smaller schools, including the animist Bon
The 16th Karmapa had been stubborn in his insistence on maintaining the
independence of his school, and maintained a "loyal opposition" to the Dalai
Lama's government. After the murder in the 1970s of one of the Karmapa's
supporters who was the head a group of refugee settlements, the Karmapa took
more care with his security and spent more time overseas. He died in the United
States in 1981. The Tibetan leader's efforts to bring him into the fold failed.
Then in 2000, Urgyen Trinley arrived on his doorstep.
Today the Dalai Lama's drive to forge unity is bearing fruit, with the 17th
Karmapa under his care. What is not needed, as far as the Tibetan leader and
the exile government is concerned, is a challenge by another claimant to the
Karmapa throne. That challenge comes from a quietly spoken young man who
resides in Kalimpong, near Sikkim, a long distance from Dharamsala. Like Urgyen
Trinley, Thaye Dorje says that he prefers to stay away from politics. But while
Urgyen Trinley talks earnestly of going to Rumtek, Thaye Dorje is more
reticent. "Speaking frankly, the monastery is just bricks and mortar. That's
it. But the thing there has a meaning behind it. The previous Karmapa built it
to spread the Dharma all over the world. Probably one can do that again."
Thaye Dorje, 20, is mindful of the need for a monastery. He lives in a house in
Kalimpong and his monks, thrown out of Rumtek by Urgyen Trinley's followers,
live in largely squalid conditions down the hill from Rumtek. The young lama
says that he is focused on the role he has to play. "Through learning and
teaching Dharma, I will be able to help people, and help myself, it is a great
joy. Of course, it is not easy. There are ups and downs, especially when you
have such a name and a responsibility. You are under pressure. But it is worth
Shamar recaps the story of how he recognized Thaye Dorje as the Karmapa. He
says that he had already announced that the Karmapa had been reborn in Tibet
before what he calls "the trouble" happened in 1992. "My search started in
1990. I publicly announced it then," he said, claiming he was in a position to
make the search. "In history, a number of Karmapas did not leave a letter. When
they did not leave a letter, then the Shamarpa [his other title] always
recognized." After Thaye Dorje was "found" in Tibet, he was quietly smuggled
out with his family in 1994.
Critics, though, question why Shamar opposed the recognition of Urgyen Trinley
and then told the Dalai Lama that he accepted it. Lama Phuntsok at Gyuto
Monastery said: "He has changed his mind three times over the recognition of
the Karmapa. Maybe it is not him, maybe it is his advisors, Tibetan
Despite the grumbles from both sides, both boys have many supporters and both
are poised to come into their own. Within a couple of years they will reach the
stage where they are knowledgeable enough to teach, though they currently
officiate at ceremonies. But whether either one of them will be allowed to go
to Rumtek, the Karmapa exile seat, will depend on the Indian authorities and
the outcome of court cases. Although the legal system works slowly in India,
the Supreme Court's ruling on the assets of Rumtek may not be long in coming.
For Urgyen Trinley, the "environmental problems" of court rooms, law suits and
Indian security are proving a hindrance he could do without. For the young man
recognized by the Dalai Lama as the 17th Karmapa, the long journey from Tibet
to Rumtek is proving arduous. Not that he needs to enter the monastery to
confirm his status. "Historically, once there has been recognition, whatever
the age of the child, it is full recognition," he said. "It is not dependent on
one day putting on the Black Hat of the Karmapas."
Publicly, Urgyen Trinley is the height of cool. "As His Holiness the Dalai Lama
says, avoid attachment," he said. "Because of this, I don't get attached to
where I am staying."
That may be so, but the Black Hat remains under lock and key in Rumtek
TOMORROW: Part 3 - Tibetan Buddhist politics enlightens Western followers
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