Document download in PDF
Introduction to the controversy about Karmapas
A few historical points
1959 : Karmapa flees to India
Difficulties in 16th Karmapa's times
Years 1980 Through 1990
Events beginning 1992
Events during May and June 1992
Propaganda campaign
Orgyen Trinley, Situ Rinpoche's Karmapa
Events during November and December 1992 in Rumtek
Some information about Sikkim
Year 1993 - situation deteriorates in Rumtek
Recognizing the 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje
Year 1994
Controversy: opposing viewpoints
Relationship between Shamar Rinpoche and Dalaï Lama
A quick glance at events from years 1995 to 1999
Year 2000
Year 2001
Chronology of Events
Bibliography and data sources
french version
receiving mail updates
mail us

Introduction to controversy about Karmapas

Politics and religion ("Karmapa Papers" introduction)

Introduction of "The Buddha cries, Karmapa conundrum"

Politics and religion ("Karmapa Papers" introduction)

A religious life, the search for ultimate truth and the development of spiritual qualities, is often considered the opposite to an involvement in politics, a so-called worldly matter. If we look at the life of Milarepa, he exemplifies this point of view. He left behind all social complexities, led a completely independent life, set up no organisation and communicated the dharma in a very direct way. Generally, however, we cannot separate religion from the society in which it is practiced.

With the spread of Buddhism in Tibet, politics and religious matters became linked. Kings and noble families were often active sponsors of monasteries and teachers, which led to wide dependency. Over time, the monasteries grew in wealth and power and, in addition to their religious importance, they became socio-political factors throughout Tibet.

Thus lineage-holders like the Karmapas have had two different roles: on the one hand they represent the highest of spirituality, giving guidance to countless students. On the other hand they are the heads of influential schools of Buddhism.

Knowing well the propensity of Tibetans to mix dharma and politics and as a strong warning to his Western disciples, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa repeatedly and strongly told his students: "No politics in my centres". Throughout history several of his incarnations avoided entanglement in politics to the point of becoming simple travelling monks when worldly matters were too much.

But willingly or not, great teachers sometimes became involved in political affairs. It was good when they could use their influence to help the people and to mediate in conflicts. We find examples of this in the lives of all Karmapas. On the other hand, there have always been people who tried to use the great lamas for their own political interests. Sometimes this even resulted in war.

One example was during the time of H. H. the 5th Dalai Lama and H. H. the 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje: One of the Karmapa 's supporters, the King of Tsang in Southern Tibet, discriminated against the Gelugpas during his reign. The Karmapa never sanctioned this in any way. The Gelugpas asked the Mongol Chief Gushri Khan for military help, so he led a big army into Tibet. Karmapa tried everything to avoid a war. Also the Dalai Lama lost control of events and fighting broke out between the Mongols backed by the Gelugpas and the King of Tsang. The Mongols won the battle. The King of Tsang was captured, many were killed and thousands were wounded. Although the Karmapa informed the Dalai Lama's government that he had no interest, in harming the Gelugpas and would gladly prove his sincerity on this point, forces were sent to attack Tsurphu Monastery. Many were killed, but Karmapa escaped, left Tibet and did not return until thirty years had passed.

Later the 10th Shamarpa became the target of violent politics. A quote from "Karmapa the Black Hat Lama of Tibet" puts it like this: "... While he (Shamarpa) was in Nepal fighting broke out between that country and Tibet. In Lhasa an influential Gelugpa Minister, Tagtsag Tenpe Gonpo, became aware of the political opportunity and claimed that Shamar Tulku was instigating the fighting from Nepal. He seized the great Yangchen Monastery of the Shamarpa and government order was passed that all monasteries of Shamar Tulku must become Gelugpa and that he must never reincarnate again. His ceremonial Red Hat was buried under the floor of Shamarpa 's temple in Lhasa and the building was turned into a court house. In fact, Shamar Tulku was at that time trying to make peace with the Nepalese and had visited the country only for reasons of pilgrimage..."

The law to stop the lineage of the Shamarpas forbade the recognition of any of his incarnations. He was no longer allowed to reside in Tibet.

In "Karmapa the Black Hat Lama of Tibet" H. H. the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa comments on the period like this: "Merit was becoming less and less. There was much political interference. Black was becoming white. The real was becoming unreal. At that time it was not practicable to have any Shamarpa recognized or enthroned. Everything was kept secret. The incarnations (of Shamar Rinpoche) appeared, but were not revealed."

It was only in 1964, that is to say after nearly 200 years, that this case was resolved completely. At that time, after meditation and dreams, H. H. the 14th Dalai Lama formally allowed the reinstatement of the Shamarpas. In addition to clashes between the different spiritual traditions, disputes sometimes arose within one lineage such as the Karma Kagyu.

The autobiography of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye shows that there was a period where he had to leave the monastery of Palpung, the seat of the Tai Situpas. In 1873 the King of Derge visited Palpung. While he was there, a great number of monks gave him an indictment which accused Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Bontrul Rinpoche. Khyentse Rinpoche advised the king not to pay attention to the matter. He said that this would greatly harm the buddhist teachings in Eastern Tibet, but the young Situ Tulku, Pema Kunsang, insisted on a judicial investigation. It was done, with the effect that most of the accusations were proved to be invalid. However, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Bontrul Rinpoche had to leave Palpung. The latter died shortly thereafter and Jamgon Rinpoche did not come back to Palpung until the death of Situ Pema Kunsang 14 years later.

From this and the above mentioned examples we can see that even though great bodhisattvas and teachers may be beyond worldly selfish concerns they can nevertheless get involved in conflicts. Thus they can become victims of political intrigues and sometimes the outer circumstances leave them little space to act for the benefit of others.

Also the tulku-system, which is of great use in the continuous and authentic transmission of the dharma was sometimes affected by political interests. The recognition of a tulku was not always motivated by religious views. As it became a mark of social honor for a family to have a son in a high religious position such as an abbot, sons of rich and influential families who sponsored a monastery were sometimes recognized as tulkus. But there have also been other reasons for the recognition of incarnate teachers.

For example the great Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, prophesized by Buddha Shakyamuni himself, was recognized as a Karma Kagyu tulku not only because of his spiritual qualities, but also to avoid him from being taken away from Palpung by Derge officials who wanted him as a secretary.
Since some of the key figures in Tibetan politics were incarnate teachers their recognition was also a highly political act. This becomes very clear when one considers the institution of the Dalai Lama.

Whoever sees the recognition of the Karmapa in this light understands how many-faceted and important this matter is.

Considering the present status of the Tibetan community in exile and the continuing turmoil and suffering in Tibet itself, disturbances like the recent ones are to be expected. Strong political forces would certainly come into action to influence the selection of one of Tibet most well known spiritual leaders, the Gyalwa Karmapa. One must furthermore anticipate that the political wishes of the Tibetan community, the spiritual needs of Tibetan disciples and the idealistic expectations of Western students cannot all be satisfied.
Fortunately the manifestations of the Karmapa in our world are very unusual and transcend all worldly limitations. There is a freshness and grandeur which forgives and forgets, which shows the play of little minds to be exactly what it is.

Introduction of "The Buddha Cries, Karmapa Conundrum", by Anil Maheshwari

Introduction of "The Buddha Cries, Karmapa Conundrum", by Anil Maheshwari
This is the chronicle of rogues in robes, and it has the ingredients of a racy pot-boiler depicting the seamy, uncompromising struggle in which the protagonists - high-ranking and respected Tibetan Buddhist lamas - are embroiled in clashes, machinations and mud-slinging that would better suit the temporal world of crooked politics than the spiritual world to which the top echelons of religious institutions profess to belong.

The study unfolds an uninterrupted chain of events and circumstances starting several centuries ago and leading to the present-day Tibetan camps and monasteries in the Himalayas of Nepal and India, Tibet, China as well as to modern Tibetan Buddhist centres in the West.

Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug are the four orders of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalaï Lama enjoys the status of the temporal leader of Tibet. His religious writs run only in his own Gelug order.

Strength-wise, among the four orders, Kagyu has the largest following in the West. The number of its non-Tibetan followers all over the world is over three hundred thousand as per a conservative estimate. Besides, the number of followers of this order in Tibet under Chinese occupation is estimated at one million.

The head of the Kagyu order is the Karmapa. On 5 November 1981, the 16th Karmapa died of cancer in Chicago, USA, leaving a network of more than 430 centres world wide, and a money-spinning machine where donations pour in incessantly.
Only a reincarnation of the Karmapa can inherit the title. The issue of reincarnation of the Karmapa has the main regents of the Kagyu order at loggerheads. They are divided into separate camps and, at the moment, at least two candidates have vied for the title.

One is Urgyen Trinley who 'escaped' from Chinese captivity in January 2000. Shamar Rinpoche, the senior regent of the Kagyu order, has described the escape of Urgyen Trinley Dorje as a Chinese ploy to claim the property of the Karmapa. Situ and Gyaltshab Rinpoches have investigated his antecedents. The Dalai Lama too has put the seal of approval on him. Trinley is supported by several lamas within the school and has been accepted by a section of the disciples of the late Karmapa. Curiously also, though avowed atheists, the Chinese too made a conciliatory gesture towards the faithful in Tibet by recognising Urgyen Trinley. It was the first such endorsement by China since the abortive Tibetan revolt of 1959 against the Chinese Communists.

However, the announcement by China stressed that the Karmapas had regularly paid tribute to the (Chinese) emperors of the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and had received imperial titles many times. Thus, on the one hand, while China shows a facade of tolerance towards religious tradition, on the other, it is obsessed with creating new evidence of its ancient sovereignty over Tibet and therefore pays special attention to Kagyu matters.

The Kagyu order predates the Gelug, the order of the Dalai Lama, by about 300 years. (See Appendix C for more details.) A tame Karmapa under Beijing's control would be a boon for China, as it would allow it to dominate his followers. With the young Karmapa 's acquiescence, China would, at a stroke, legitimise its current claim of rule over Tibet dating back to the twelfth or thirteenth century. It was a near take-over by Communist China of the Kagyu order by proxy in which Chinese political expediency saw fit to create a unanimity of views with the Dalai Lama though the fact remains that the confirmation by the Dalai Lama of Urgyen Trinley as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa came a full three weeks before the Chinese approval'.

The Dalai Lama's coterie was already itching to settle scores with the Kagyu order. It was also deluding itself with hopes of getting concessions from China regarding the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second in hierarchy in the ruling Gelug order of the Dalai Lama. To the disappointment of the coterie, China did not oblige.

The only Buddhist lama who side stepped the Chinese trap was Shamar Rinpoche, the senior regent in the Kagyu order. Brushing aside all overtures of the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, he searched Trinley Thaye Dorje, a Tibet-born boy and, before declaring him as the reincarnation of the Karmapa, he smuggled the boy along with his parents into India. Trinley Thaye Dorje has been approved by several teachers within the Kagyu order and by a sizeable section of the students of the 16th Karmapa in western countries.

India, a secular country, does not interfere in sacerdotal traditions. However, it could not remain aloof from this controversy. The headquarters of the Kagyu order is at Rumtek in Sikkim, a state bordering China, and China till date refuses to recognise Sikkim as an integral part of India. Were the 'Karmapa' recognised by China to be allowed access to Rumtek, the headquarters of the Karmapa in Sikkim (India), the decision would certainly have political repercussions for India. Understandably, India is covertly siding with Shamar Rinpoche while the Sikkim politicians, despite their differences by and large, are kowtowing to Situ Rinpoche, the number three in the hierarchy of the Kagyu order.

Isolation has been a distinctive feature of Tibet for centuries. The country's geographical inaccessibility and the genuine desire of its inhabitants to have few contacts with outsiders created an ideal situation for seclusion. However, the asylum of Tibetans in India, Nepal, Europe and America was crucial for the survival of Tibetan culture. Considering that the Tibetans fleeing Tibet had little experience of the outside world, they managed the transition from obscurity to modernism well. But in exile they had to work hard to protect their culture from that of the host countries. This problem was exacerbated by the very success Tibetan Buddhism achieved outside Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism did not isolate itself in exile. Instead, by the late 1960s, it emerged as an active proselytising movement in the West. For people with spiritual inclinations in the West who were not drawn towards the institutionally less embedded Hindu gurus and were more fascinated with 'miracles', Tibetan Buddhism appeared as an authentic and authoritative Asian religious alternative.

The present-day loyalties, rivalries, and hostilities among the Himalayan lamas have a direct connection with what happened inside Tibet and also China during the last several hundred years. The Tibetan history presents a tangled web of religion, politics, myths and miracles. It is critical to separate these threads to distinguish facts from fiction.

Little wonder, actions and thoughts of majority of Tibetans are governed, to a large extent, by episodes from the past. Tibetologists say that the intervening period between the death of a high lama heading a monastic order and confirmation of his reincarnation has almost always been marked by rivalries, struggles and intrigues - and also, machinations. The whole process of reincarnation of lamas and the metaphysical transmission of religious and temporal authority in a Tibetan monastic order possibly has political undertones.

The Nyingma order faced competing reincarnations in 1992. The Dalai Lama backed one nominee as the reincarnation of Dujom Rinpoche, the highest Nyingma lama. On the other hand, Nyingma Chadrel Rinpoche recognised another candidate, and all Nyingma disciples followed their own order's choice.

The head of Sakya has always been a tantric practitioner, like the Nyingma lamas. He is allowed to marry and keep his plait of hair. As a true follower of tantric doctrine, he is believed to be a voluntary impotent for he does not discharge semen. However, if he feels it necessary to have a successor, he invites the soul of a dead holy person to enter into the womb of his wife. The present reigning lama Ngawang Kunga Theckchen Rinpoche (Sakya Tridzen) is from the House of Dolma Phodrang. He stays at Dehra Dun in India. Two other lamas from the House of Phuntsok Phodrang work in Seattle, USA. Sakya Lama's priesthood is hereditary.

The head of the Gelug order hands over his Ganden throne to a successor chosen by him before his death. The tradition continues till today. The 99th successor of the Ganden throne and the religious head of the Gelug order is Yeshi Dhondup. He lives in exile at the Kaden monastery in Karnataka (India).

The main secular function of tulku was to institutionalise the charisma of some individual lamas with extraordinary achievements. The idea is based on the Buddhist (or Hindu) concept of rebirth, which all persons are supposed to undergo after death. However, bodhisattvas, whose reincarnations most of the high lamas claim, are superior beings who are on the threshold of enlightenment but who have deliberately postponed it in order to be present in the world and help the suffering human beings to become enlightened.

What has set Tibet apart from the rest of the world is the fact that the country was able to continue the unbroken and living transmission of the teachings of the Buddha. These include the highest instructions about the ultimate nature of reality along with methods of its realisation. And while the average Tibetan goes about his or her business without giving much thought to the highest truth - leaving all such exalted matters to the attention of their lamas and institutions - a small number of individuals use the unique techniques available and achieve better results. Out of a few million people, a precious handful of lamas and yogis are able to fulfil, generation after generation, the highest potential of the human mind.

As such, Tibetans believe that such high lamas have a certain degree of freedom over death and rebirth, especially when it comes to when and where to be reborn. It is this mysterious jigsaw puzzle that lamas try to solve after the death of every high lama through dreams and visions, oracles and divinations, mysterious signs and close observations.

The Karmapa has kept coming back in an unbroken sequence of embodiments that has spanned 900 years till now. Similarly, other highly realised lamas started to reincarnate consciously and were then recognised by their accomplished disciples. Life after life, a lama's enlightened qualities came into contact with his students. Hundreds of different tulku lines manifested throughout Tibet and the whole system served as a unique mechanism for preserving an unbroken transmission of the Buddha's teachings.

Over the centuries, however, monasteries and their tulkus have grown in wealth and wield considerable influence over the social and political life of the country. A number of tulkus have assumed the role of political figures augmenting their role as religious teachers. To locate and deliver the new reincarnation of a prominent tulku to his old monastery means gain of power. Since in many cases the criteria according to which reincarnates are recognised leave much room for manoeuvre, the process becomes an instrument for political infighting. The traditional method of scrutiny whereby the young hopefuls have to identity objects belonging to the predecessors is often bypassed. Outstanding masters are not always consulted. Political influence, money or the edge of the sword have become the decisive factors instead, and the rank of authentic tulkus has begun to dwindle.

It is not at all uncommon to have two or more candidates - each backed by a powerful faction - openly and violently challenging a well-known tulku seat. While the young aspirants may have little idea about the fray that goes on behind their backs, their mighty patrons are even ready to go to war to see their choice prevail

Once the throne of a tulku for a contestant is won, his education begins, strictly in accordance with the role he has to play in his mature years. Surrounded by an all-male entourage of hereditary tutors and servants, the young reincarnate is generally subjected to severe discipline and left exclusively in the custody of his circle of zealous attendants. This is to enable the tulku to receive a transmission of the Buddha's teachings in its purest form, as much as it is to guard him as the monastery's most valuable possession. More often than not, consequently, the seclusion results in the tulkus somewhat vague knowledge about life outside his monastery's walls. At the same time, those around him play a far more dominant role than the benefit of his seat would require, pursuing sometimes their vested interests over the head of their master. Such a state of affairs is, of course, fertile ground for foreign interference.

With foreign as well as domestic meddling close at hand, the religious choice for a tulku has, over the centuries, become an exception rather than the rule. Authentic lamas have, of course, manifested. Tibetan history is rich in examples of highly accomplished tulku lines and, in theory, the whole system is geared towards bringing forward and taking care of such things. Yet, the same system, after centuries of abuse, has allowed a great number of reincarnates to become political puppets or absolute princes. They become instruments in the hands of their households whose members, while fervently guarding access to the former 's ears, scheme their own intrigues. Reincarnates often behave like politicians and remain accountable to none. Advised by whosoever has gained their favour, they plunge often unprepared into the choppy waters of political passion. As a consequence, a throng of inept individuals often governs the affairs though their only qualification is the possession of a title or affiliation to a name.

The narrative that follows is to be perceived against this particular setting. The inflammable mixture of a touch of personal animosity, hostility and, eventually, hatred has added spice to an otherwise dry historical process.

The emerald-green mountains and the snow-white clouds above the Rumtek monastery turn dark gray as sunlight dissolves, in the distant horizon. The deepening darkness renders the base murky. The bells toll a sombre note and the traditional ornate gongs resound at a slow and graceful pace. The multi-hued prayer pennants flutter in the gentle breeze that whiffs around the majestic monastery nestling on the mountain. An air of oriental mysticism pervades the place and spontaneously evokes feelings of deep devotion and awe. Tibetan ascetics and their disciples are there. So are the murals, tapestries and thankas (scroll paintings) embroidered with traditional and religious motifs. But, the pristine serene atmosphere of the gompa has soured to the extent that it seems to be beyond redemption. The canker has set in and, like gangrene, inch by inch, the flesh is putrefying though the spirit is ever so willing.