< the 16th Karmapa,
photo: Blair Hansen
a paper by Lama Tendar Olaf Hoeyer
Since 1992 there has been two branches of the old Karma Kagy├╝ tradition, each with it’s own Karmapa and international network of Lamas, monasteries, institutions and centers. This separation in two branches is problematic of several reasons, but it is not unusual in the history of Buddhism. The most problematic point is, that the whole Tibetan Tulku tradition of so called consciously reborn Lamas has been discredited and has maybe lost it’s usefulness as a credible propagator of the Dharma transmissions. The Karmapa was the first Lama in history that formed an institution around his repeated incarnations in the World 900 years ago. Today, there are more than 5000 Tulkus from Tibet and nearby territories. It is unlikely that they all are saints. On the other hand, saints do appear in most religious traditions, whether they are Tulkus or not. True Bodhisattwas will reincarnate anyway, within or without formal institutions.
Generally, it is overlooked that the separation is the result of an attempt to overthrow Shamarpa from his position as the second highest Tulku within the Karma Kagy├╝ tradition. Shamarpa is the second Lama in history to build an institution around his repeated incarnations. Most people think, that the matter at hand is an election between two Karmapas, and very few ask into, why the Shamarpa had to be removed from influence. And indeed, there are only political reasons for that.
In 1992 everybody in the Karma Kagy├╝ tradition became completely astonished, because Situpa, the third highest ranking Lama after the Karmapa, appointed a boy, Ugyen Thinley Dorje as the 17th incarnation of Karmapa. It was not shocking, that a Karmapa was appointed. It had been expected ever since the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981. The astonishing aspect was, that the next-highest Lama within Karma Kagy├╝, the Shamarpa was away travelling in America, and he had not been informed about the event beforehand, nor had he consented to it. Shamarpa knew, that Situpa thought he had found the right candidate, but Shamarpa had resisted an appointment at their last meeting, until a proper investigation could be conducted about the authenticity of the candidate. Situpa rushed the appointment anyway, probably because he already had an approval and a negotiated time-schedule with the Chinese government in place. Ugyen Thinley Dorje was on his way to the monastery of Tsurphu in Tibet in order to ascend the throne of the Karmapas there, while all this happened in Rumtek Monastery of Sikkim. (Tsurphu was the seat of the 16th Karmapa in Tibet until the flight in 1959 to Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, where he lived thereafter)
When Shamarpa came back to Rumtek, he expressed great reservations about this appointment and proceeded to proclaim the new 17th Karmapa Thinley Taye Dorje in 1994. The separation in two branches of the Karma Kagy├╝ was a reality without mutual recognition and respect. Shamarpa thinks that an appointment demands his acknowledgement and the recognition by the 16th Karmapa's lhabrang (more about this later) according to tradition. Situpa thinks that Shamarpa has not found a genuine Karmapa Tulku (rebirth of a high Lama). Why he thinks so, he has not explained, except that since he has appointed Karmapa, there is no need for Shamarpa to proclaim another Karmapa. Situpa quite simply is in denial, and he does not want to handle the matter of Shamarpa's appointment of Karmapa Thinley Taye Dorje with any seriousness. The issue is definitely not easy to evaluate. The book: Karmapa Papers, presents the related documents and later publicised books try to explain the whole matter in more detail. Look at the end of this paper for titles and links. I show here, what I have found out myself and relate my personal views.
Karmapa Thinley Taye Dorje
The 17th Karmapa Thinley Taye Dorje was found by a great Lama in a clear and strong vision. The day after his clairvoyance, the Lama met with Karmapa on the street, exactly as he had seen in his vision, and Karmapa did thereupon exactly the same as the Lama had seen previously. It was a d├ęj├á-vu. The Karmapa was then just a little boy, but he went straight up to the Lama and said: I am the Karmapa and you were previously my student. All circumstances have been told to me by this great Lama that I have known for many years and who is well respected all over the Tibetan cultural area. It was not before the year 2000 at an official occasion that this Lama took me into confidence and told me, how all this had happened.
Unfortunately, I cannot tell any more because of the present political circumstances. According to my retreat-master Gendun Rinpoche, the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpae Dorje told him that certain prophecies about events in connection with his rebirth had to be fulfilled, before everything about it could be told publicly. Hopefully, this time is approaching because the public has a right to know. For my own part, I am satisfied with the information I have obtained so far and I can conclude, that the 17th Karmapa Thinley Taye Dorje was found in a way and under circumstances that are normally considered authentic in Tibet, when it happens in this way, and they are indeed traditional for a Karmapa’s rebirth. There are several other accounts about the finding of Karmapa Thinley Taye Dorje, that describe the indications of the authenticity of his appointment, but nobody else tell this story, that I have recounted above. It was this great Lama’s personal information that really convinced me.
Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorje
I would have loved to be able to say the same about the 17th Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorje, but I have not been able to gather reliable information and I meet distrust among his followers, that also have not been helpful to obtain such information. They know that I am a student of Shamarpa, so their reservations are understandable, but I am also a student of several high ranking Lamas, that publicly adhere to Situpa’s appointment of Karmapa Ugyen Thinle Dorje. There are, of course reports about how he was appointed and why he is an authentic incarnation, but serious doubts has been raised about them that have not been satisfactory explained by Situpa and Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorje’s organisation nor by his supporters. So, I await patiently and hope that everything also will be discovered concerning Ugyen Thinley Dorje.
There is, though, a somewhat strange story, that Ugyen Thinley Dorje tells to an audience of a TED conference in November 2009 (TED Conference). In this film, he says that a team of people once came to his family, while he was only a 7 year old child, and told him that he was in fact a reincarnation of Karmapa. It is custom that a Karmapa proclaims himself to be the one for everybody to know. The earlier incarnations have all appointed themselves and thereby attracted the attention of the World – and not the other way around. Ugyen Thinley Dorje must know this, so it is a very peculiar statement. To Zeenews, he explains in december 2011: "I was only seven years old when I was recognised as the Karmapa. I did not have the ability to choose. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. And when I had the ability to choose, it was too late." (Click here for the paragraph - Zeenews.com is an Indian online news service). These words from his own mouth does undeniably indicate, that he was not found in the same way as all the previous Karmapas. Of course, I cannot judge whether he is a genuine Tulku of the 16th Karmapa or not, but there are really many unanswered questions, that have risen in the wake of his appointment.
There is no doubt however, that both Karmapas have been educated traditionally and have received the full Dharma transmission, and they are both thereby holders of it. So, today there are two branches of the Karma Kagy├╝ tradition with a separate Karmapa for each as their spiritual heads.
The problem is, of course that there used only to be one Karmapa, and now both Karmapas’ authenticity are thrown into doubt, and the two Karmapas’ organisations have not yet discovered how to relate to each other in a constructive way. The Dalai Lama and the Chinese government have recognised Ugyen Thinley Dorje as Karmapa without doing so also concerning Karmapa Thinley Taye Dorje, but recognition of Karmapas have never before been their concern. It is in fact quite remarkable that they feel called upon to do so, and we should question what interests that they seek to serve by this intervention. Shamarpa has of course not asked for their recognition of Karmapa Thinley Taye Dorje in a similar way, because that would go against the tradition of Karma Kagy├╝. Appointment of a Karmapa is an internal matter of Karma Kagy├╝ alone.
It is not for me to approve or recognise a Karmapa. The controversy about the two Karmapas is not a presidential election, as Shamarpa has said earlier. The point of this paper is to show my own dilemma, that is shared by many others, and to present the main character of the issue. I am a student of both Shamarpa and Tenga Rinpoche that each support a different Karmapa. The reason for my reservations towards Tenga Rinpoche’s position is, that he has to follow Situpa, no matter what he may think for himself. Why this is so, will become obvious later. The really frustrating thing about the whole matter is, that Ugyen Thinley Dorje may very well be a genuine Tulku, but it is not being documented. Instead it is being emphasised that he looks a lot like the 16th Karmapa in his physical features, but none of the previous Karmapas resembled their predecessors, so what is the point? Also, Situpa’s letter is emphasised, that allegedly is written by the 16th Karmapa and that allegedly predicts Ugyen Thinley Dorje as a genuine reincarnation. This does not appear credible though, partly because both Shamarpa and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche were sceptical of the origin of the handwriting. Shamarpa has said that the handwriting most of all resembled that of Situpa. Partly because Situpa will not allow a forensic test of the document.
This is suspicious, because just before Situpa declared that he had found the prophetic letter, so long sought after, he had announced that he lied about the previous letter, that were earlier presented about the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa (read the column to the right). Why then, should he not feel forced to lie again? He said, that he had to lie because of pressure from impatient supporters. Ever since the appointment of Ugyen Thinley Dorje, the pressure on Situpa has increased manifold, but now he is not lying? Once caught in a lie, you are actually not trustworthy. Since a forensic test of the letter is not allowed, we must assume it is a forgery.
The 16th Karmapa’s own organisation (Tibetan: lhabrang) was as official as can be in Tibet, but when the Karmapa moved to India in 1959, he had to form a corporation according to Indian law. So, he instituted the Karmapa Charitable Trust for this purpose. This foundation also demanded a forensic examination of the letter in 1992. This is it’s privilege as the administrator of the late 16th Karmapa’s estate. Situpa would not allow that, disregarding the tradition. Why doesn’t Situpa just tell us, how he really found Ugyen Thinley Dorje, the whole story? He has some authority to find Karmapas, so he does not have to forge documents and so on. I think, it is a bit mysterious.
Of whatever reason, Situpa announced that he had never met with Ugyen Thinley Dorje, before he put him on the Karmapa's throne inside Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet in September 1992. However, Lop├Ân Dechen Rinpoche - who at that time was the leader of the monastery - said, that Situpa had met with Ugyen Thinley Dorje the year before. He was himself a witness of the event (according to Brooke Webb at: www.karmapa.org.nz/news/58/64/Today-there-are-two-officially-proclaimed-17th-Karmapas. Citation: “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”).
Why did Situpa not support this account? Since they already met each other in 1991, why did he not tell the other 3 Regents about it in 1992? Who put pressure on Situpa to lie about this as well?
Now, these lies may be lies of convenience - white lies, but what purpose do they serve? Surely, they seem intended to save face for Situpa, but they also misguided the public. The whole story about Situpa and Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorje have never been told in public. Hopefully, we shall come know it all in due time.
Traditionally, it has been the Shamarpa that found the new Karmapa, but it has not always been the case. Situpa has also found several incarnations, but it is the first time in history that Situpa has forced an appointment of a Karmapa without any concern about the opinions of the Shamarpa and without the consent of Karmapa’s organisation (Karmapa Charitable Trust). It is not clear, why Situpa regarded this action as necessary and right. Something could indicate that Situpas’ lhabrang want to put aside Shamarpas’ authority in order to promote Situpas’ influence on the Karma Kagy├╝ organisations. This, they probably want, because for almost 200 years there have been no official Shamarpa, so in this period, Situpa have been number two in the hierarchy after the Karmapa. Therefore Situpas’ lhabrang is a bit sad to become number three again. This is somewhat strange, since the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpae Dorje quite clearly have stated the hierarchical authority within Karma Kagy├╝ (read the page: Hierarchy).
Shamarpa has found what he calls the classical Karmapa, thereby meaning Thinley Taye Dorje. By this appointment he has not excluded Ugyen Thinley Dorje from being a genuine Tulku. On the other hand, Shamarpa does not feel, that the documentation for Ugyen Thinley Dorje is satisfying. It is quite obvious that Shamarpa has no influence on the other branch of Karma Kagy├╝, that is now being lead by Situpa and Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorje. So, you must be a fool, if you cannot see, that a coup has taken place in order to remove the Shamarpa from his top post. That has only partly succeeded. Shamarpa is still leading a large part of the Karma Kagy├╝ organisations together with Karmapa Thinley Taye Dorje. Both Shamarpa and Situpa have been appointed to their high posts by the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpae Dorje and no one have raised doubts about their authenticity, so if the 16th Karmapa was a genuine Tulku, both of them should also be so. Logically you could assume, that both of the Karmapas having been appointed by them are also authentic, but doubts are raised exactly about that. Most people can only imagine one Karmapa at a time, at any rate only one official incarnation, even though the Karmapa is known to emanate several Tulkus simultaneously. It is not so uncommon. Khyentse Wangpo, a famous Lama from the 19th century, is known to emanate 7 incarnations simultaneously in our time.
Read the paper Karmapa Controversy by Karma Wangchuk (from the KIBI institute) about the disagreements between the two branches of Karma Kagy├╝. Hopefully, the article can clarify some of the political manipulations, that have evolved around the Karmapas. There is also a reliable book: Buddha’s not smiling, by Erik D. Curren, that exposes a number of lies and manipulations which Situpa and his organisations are responsible of. Unfortunately, the book does not clarify completely all the points of controversy, because much of it is yet not known or made public.
On the internet, you may find a lot of misleading lies and nonsense, when you conduct a search. Some people think that there can only be one genuine Karmapa, so the other have to be a fake, but the controversy does not at all lead to such a choice. Instead the whole Tulku tradition of Tibet is thrown into doubt, that is whether any such appointed Lama is really a reincarnation of his predecessor. You can only trust that, when everybody goes about the matter with the highest degree of seriousness, sincerity and transparency in all their dispositions. There were always doubt about certain Tulkus, when their appointments looked like political choices and therefore often also were so, but very seldom about the really great Lamas. Some people feel, that they have to choose, because their own Lamas have chosen side. Such a choice have to be considered with some reservation, because you cannot always know why Tibetan Lamas decide political matters in a Tibetan context. Normally they are wrapped into age-old alliances with both other Tulkus, monasteries, powerful families and various Tibetan clans, that being so even today when Tibet is a ”communist” republic and the exiled Tibetans live in freedom abroad.
To state it briefly, the great Tibetan Lamas are under obligation towards many thousands of people from all over the Tibetan cultural area, where both politics, survival and suppression take place by personal connections and various more or less known networks, both inside and outside Tibet, that have existed for centuries and still evolve. People cultivate their loyalties as they have always done. Likewise, the great Karma Kagy├╝ Lamas cultivate their age-old alliance patterns between their original Tibetan monasteries that are spread out all over the whole of the Tibetan cultural area, each monastery with it’s own support-groups in the populace. There are not political parties, but several unions or more correctly, tribal alliances that follow the clan-leaders. It of course matters to the Tulkus, the support-groups and the clan-leaders, who the ”real” Karmapa is, but they follow the policies of their unions when first it has been laid down for them, in order to stay united. Those that since old times were allies of Situpa follow his lead. Those from the central Tibet dare not go against the wishes of the Dalai lama, at the least not publicly.
Shamarpa differs from this pattern by his lack of such old unions and alliances in Tibet, because the Tibetan government some 200 years ago prohibited his official incarnations. Since the death of the 10th Shamarpa in 1792 (read the column to the right), his incarnations have been unofficial, though known by an inner circle. The monasteries that regarded him as their head, were confiscated by the Tibetan government and all his possessions including the fabulous ruby-red crown were brought to the Potala palace in Lhasa. Dalai Lama revoked the ban in 1964. The present 14th Shamarpa has therefore only a proper network outside Tibet, though the Yangpachen Monastery near Lhasa once again have appointed him as their head. In this context the consequence is, that the Shamarpa does not have the same obligations towards the situation and populace of Tibet as the other great Karma Kagy├╝ Lamas.
First of all, we still need information about what really happened between Situpa, the Chinese government, the exile-government of Dalai Lama and Situpa’s large number of followers and allies in eastern Tibet (Kham) and north-eastern Tibet (Amdo) all the way back from the time of the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpae Dorje’s death in 1981. Those areas lie partly in the Sichuan- and Qinghai provinces of China proper (look up the page: photos of events and places, and find the map from BBC there). The controversy is definitely not marked by mutual understanding, empathy, transparency, openness, access to archive papers, sobriety and verification of both events and accounts of witnesses from the part of Situ Rinpoche. On the contrary, there has been a great pressure on everybody to choose the side of Ugyen Thinley Dorje in the conflict. Hopefully, in due time we will come to know the information, so far lacking. Here in the West, such things cannot drift in the clouds, left to speculation and superstition. The whole transmission of Dharma may become threatened, if the general public is lead to believe that this story is just yet another Guru scandal, where people are mislead to fanaticism and superstition and loose money, that they might have spent better themselves.
The controversy is a Tibetan mess that shows, that the Tibetans are not at all ready for the modern age with it’s challenges, as we perceive them to be here in the West. I am tempted to claim that the Dharma is a reactionary force in Asia, just like most other religions with roots in antiquity, are more comfortable with the past than the future. We from the West do not need to get trapped and become reactionaries ourselves. To us, the Dharma is avant-garde, great news and the new religion of modern times. It is a challenge to ourselves, how we organise and institutionalise the transmission and training of the Dharma in such a way, that transparency, power-sharing and accountability in all matters of power, money and decisions become routine. We cannot organise ourselves as if we were in Tibet, nor give power over our organisations to any one single person. Buddhist societies should be democratically organised, while the institutions should have meritocratic governance (peer control), when nothing else is prescribed as in the case of monasteries with their ancient democratic tradition. I can only hope that the Tibetans will arrive at the same conclusion in due time.
To verify the Tulkus’ authenticity is certainly a problem, but first of all to the Tibetans, and the problem here lies more with the Tulku’s own organisation, the so-called lhabrang, that resembles a company or corporation. The lhabrang is formed in order to support the activity of the Tulku on a practical level, and to administer the property and wealth of the Tulku. When a Tulku dies, the most important job for the lhabrang is to find the reincarnation of the Tulku. The most important issue for us in the West, is to verify the authenticity of the Dharma-transmission and to observe, whether the Tulku behaves as a real Bodhisatwa or not. The most important function of a Tulku anywhere is, that he or she in the right and best way carries the perfect transmission of Dharma from Buddha Sakyamuni himself, master the Dharma and transmit it to willing trainees, that also are able to master the transmission.
Tulkus are not just anybody. They all have a good upbringing and education and are normally found with several of the so-called Buddha-marks on their bodies even as very small children. Those Buddha-marks are physical signs, that in both Ayurveda (the ancient Indian medical system) and the Tantras are characterised as physical expressions of spiritual qualities. Actually, these Buddha-marks are indeed interesting for the future. If the Tulku system is to become reformed in order to prevent lies and manipulations, it is imaginable, that we no longer should be looking for a definite reincarnation but rather the most suited, that manifests inborn marks of a true Bodhisatwa. If these Buddha-marks have general validity and are free from simple convention and old custom, then it is possible to find and describe the talents and abilities of even very small children, before they themselves are able to show and demonstrate them. A reformation of the Tulku system though, may take very long time, because the Tibetans are very conservative about their great Lamas. We Westerners cannot institute any new procedure, because for many years yet to come, we will be completely dependent on the Tibetans to hold and master the transmission of Dharma. Without the Tibetans, the Karma Kagy├╝ tradition will simply vanish from the West.
Rumtek Monastery and a conclusion
A very prolonged lawsuit about the control of Rumtek monastery in Sikkim have to some degree clarified the legal status in India. The suit has been in progress since 1997. Never the less, it is still Situpa’s organisation that illegally occupies Rumtek monastery, though the Shamarpa and the administration of the 16th Karmapa (Karmapa Charitable Trust, the officially recorded Karmapa lhabrang in India) won in the courts. The monks of the 16th Karmapa have in fact been homeless ever since 1993, when supporters of Situpa illegally, violently and forcefully evicted them from the Rumtek monastery. The lawsuit have dragged on for many years in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. An appeal to the High Court in New Delhi was won by the Shamarpa and Karmapa Charitable Trust, whereupon the suit has to reopen in the Sikkim court. Here it is being delayed by the other part in the suit and the political establishment in Sikkim, including the court itself. Therefore, the Sikkim court as well as Shamarpa and the Karmapa Charitable Trust have had the suit transported to a court of law in West Bengal, a neighbouring union-state of India, that seems less biased for all. Anyway, no matter how the lawsuit develops, it is very interesting. The two Karmapas have not yet met, even though they both live in India and may be the best persons to mediate the controversy.
Do not let confusion take hold of you. The Karma Kagy├╝ tradition have simply branched out in two organisations of different reasons, but they are both the carriers of the same tradition, learning and training systems. That is all very genuine, original and effective. These organisation do only exist in order to propagate the transmission - not to compete, nor to fight. There are good Lamas and Lop├Âns (sanskrit: Acharya, an academic Master degree) within both branches of Karma Kagy├╝. There are also villains everywhere in the world and not only within just one of the branches of Karma Kagy├╝. Still, we wait on satisfactory information about the history of the ramification itself, and about Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorje in particular.
We should not be surprised to find dirty politics within religious traditions. They are like all other societies prone to quests for power, so we should prevent the power-hungry from being able to control everything in the very way, that we organise ourselves. The answer to the Karmapa controversy is to decentralise everything and spread all kinds of power structures, so decisions can only be made by consensus of many. The guiding principle should be that of transparency, power-sharing and easy ways of removing various kinds of leadership. We need check and balances and much more accountability on all levels. The spiritual directorship must stay with the Tulkus and the Khenpos (sanskrit: Pandit, an academic Doctor degree). In the future, the Tulku tradition have to be reformed, when the Tibetans eventually come to understand the need for it.
The legend about the two Karmapas is now awaiting that the lawsuit concerning Rumtek Monastery will reach a verdict, before a dialogue can start, I presume. The story about the finding of Ugyen Thinley Dorje still awaits, that the necessary information is made available. There are simply too many holes in it. It is not possible for me to obtain information from Chinese sources, though it would be really interesting to know, what knowledge the Chinese have of his appointment. The Tibetans may use this issue as an inspiration to build a critical investigative journalism. There is a astonishing lack of this in the Tibetan exile community. One may wonder, how the Tibetans will handle democracy in the future, when dissent from the mainstream fare so badly, as this controversy shows. The princely Tulku tradition seems doomed to vanish, unless some checks and balances are introduced to verify their authenticity. In the kingdom of Bhutan, the government have established a committee to oversee the appointment of Tulkus within Bhutan in order to counteract manipulations of both the establishment and the public. Whether this is a good idea, is very doubtful. It does not seem to be the right thing to do for a worldly government.
Click here for the article: Karmapa controversy
The controversy is described in depth in the book: Buddha’s not smiling, by Erik D. Curren. There is a new book: The Karmapa Prophecies by Sussie Wong that describes how earlier Dharma-master’s prophecies have been used in the art of distortion and manipulation of public opinion in order to promote the appointment of Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorje. It describes in more detail those strange events. Karmapa Ugyen Thinley Dorje’s organisation and supporters have also published some books about the separation, but I cannot recommend these, because they fail to be of quality and lack in accuracy. You may read them anyway to learn their points of view, or if you want to study manipulation of public opinion. All these books are tedious reading. The latest developments in the lawsuit about Rumtek monastery can be obtained at: www.karmapapapers.com, the main article from this web-site you can download as a PDF file HERE. The K. S. Rao report, stating the interests of the Indian government, you can download as a PDF file HERE. Related documents: Shamarpa on the two Karmapas and Shamarpa on the inventory of Rumtek Monastery. Read Shamarpa’s latest statement: HERE. See all articles about this matter HERE.
Read about the undeclared money (in a fiscal sense), concerning Ugyen Thinley Dorje: HERE and HERE. Ugyen Thinley Dorje was summond to appear in a court of law of Himachal Pradesh, a union-state of India. He actually was in risk of receiving a 2 year sentence in prison for conspiracy to hide the money for the authorities (Zeenews on the 16th of February 2012). In the summer of 2012, Ugyen Thinley Dorje’s name have been removed from the indictment in this case, so he will not be prosecuted after all. The whole blame of this scandal is now laid on his administration. It is a pity, that the followers of Ugyen Thinle as well as his organisation, do not seem to be able to do the right ting. In their defense, it must be admitted, that it is not easy to identify, what excatly would be the right thing for them to do.