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