Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Karmapas are one of the oldest lineages of tulkus, reincarnated lamas in Tibetan Buddhism. Karmapa is traditionally the head of the Karma Kagyu school, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Due to a controversy over the recognition process, the identity of the current 17th Karmapa is actively disputed. There are two claimants - Thaye Dorje and Urgyen Trinley Dorje - each supported by a number of important lamas from the Kagyu lineage. Both have already been enthroned as 17th Karmapa and perform ceremonial and ritual duties. As of 2004 they have not met.
This situation has led to deep division among Kagyu followers all over the world. Each side accuses other of lying and wrongdoing. It is therefore very hard to produce an objective description of the events as most important developments are known only from conflicting accounts by those involved.
As with any other lineage of tulkus, the question of recognizing the new incarnation is crucial. Sometimes, all concerned parties are sure that a particular child is indeed the new incarnation of that particular master. Sometimes not. This is what has happened in the case of the 17th Karmapa.
Karmapas are self-recognizing. That means that all incarnations claim very early in life to be Karmapa, recognized associates and colleagues of the previous incarnation, and have been generally remarkable for their age (see history of previous incarnations). Also, each Karmapa has left indications leading to his next re-birth, usually in the form of a letter. In such letters, indications regarding the location and parentage of the next incarnation were included, though usually in a poetic form that is difficult to decipher.
However, the closest associates of the previous incarnation play a crucial role in the process of recognizing the next Karmapa. After all, it is they - adult and fully realized Buddhist masters - who will have to raise and teach the child.
Traditionally, over the centuries, it was the Shamarpa who was head of the lineage (or regent) in the absence of a Karmapa and recognized the new incarnation of his master. The Karmapa, in turn, recognized the new incarnation of Shamarpa; and so it went. Two centuries ago, that sequence was broken when, as a result of rivalry with the ruling Gelug school, the Shamarpa incarnation of that time was accused of treason. He was banned from public life – and also banned from reincarnating (which might sound strange to the Western mind). That ban was finally lifted by the current Dalai Lama in 1963.
According to the 16th Karmapa, the Shamarpa has continued to re-incarnate along with his master; however, his re-incarnations have been kept secret. As a result, for the last two centuries, the Shamarpa has not been able to officially recognize the re-incarnations of the Karmapa. Therefore, the 13th Karmapa (born in 1733) was recognized by Situpa; the 14th Karmapa (born in 1798) by Drukchen Kunzig Chokyi Nangwa; the 15th Karmapa (born in 1871) by Kyabgon Drukchen Rinpoche; and the 16th (born in 1924) by Situpa and Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche.
These historical events and to some extent conflicting traditions have been the background of the current conflict. Its main actors - Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche - have all been tulkus recognized personally 16th Karmapa. They are of similar age and they’ve spent much of their youth together at the Rumtek monastery. It was clear that Karmapa hoped that it would create additional bonds of friendship amongst them.
However, this didn’t work and four main figures of the lineage (after Karmapa) were far from being friends who trust each other. But it wasn’t apparent and known until Karmapa’s death in 1981.
First sign of problems between now regents of the lineage appeared during Karmapa’s funeral with the mysterious incident concerning his heart which fell out of the cremation stupa as it was burning. According to one witnesses it fell straight into Tai Situpa’s hands, according to others it just fell to the ground, was taken into monastery and later claimed by Tai Situpa who invented the first story.
This minor incident is brought here, because it might be seen as the first time when observers had to deal with conflicting accounts of the same events and thus it might be considered the first step towards the later split. It was also used by Tai Situpa and his supporters as an additional argument – they say that since 16th Karmapa’s heart fell into Tai Situ’s hands it surely meant that Karmapa wished to show his trust in him.
As time passed after XVI Karmapa’s death and nothing was announced about the new incarnation the community of Kagyu followers grew more and more anxious. At last, in 1986 the four regents announced that a letter containing prophecy about next incarnation was found. However, regents announced also that an additional letter was attached to the prophecy in which Karpama asked his students to perform various rituals and recite numerous mantras before the contents of the prophecy could be revealed.
Kagyu students around the world started to perform those rituals and in 1988 they were completed. However, regents didn’t announce anything despite that. As pressure from students grew, regents were rarely meeting each other and no further information was published until 1992.
On 19th of March 1992 Tai Situ presented a letter that – as he claimed – was given to him by the Karmapa and contained information about the next incarnation. However, Shamarpa immediately expressed his doubts about the letter’s authenticity.
One claimant, Thaye Dorje, is supported by lamas including the Shamarpa, who is traditionally involved in identifying reincarnations of the Karmapa. Other teachers traditionally involved in the identification procedure, in particular the Tai Situpa, have recognised Urgyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa. He is also supported by a number of other Kagyu lamas as well as by the Dalai Lama of the Geluk school, by the Sakya school, and by the government of the People's Republic of China.
For followers on both sides of this controversy, the issue is painful and unclear. Both sides pray that the rightful Karmapa may be able to do his dharmic duties and teachings. The teachers on both sides urge their students to continue their practice sincerely and try not to get too involved in the politics and remain compassionate and forgiving and as open minded as possible. Also, Karma Kagyu teachers say that the future actions and spiritual realization of the claimants will show clearly which one is the real re-incarnation of the 16th Karmapa.
Urgyen Trinley Dorje
Urgyen Trinley Dorje was born in 1985 to a nomadic family in eastern Tibet. At age seven, he was formally enthroned at Tsurphu monastery, the traditional seat of the Karmapas in Tibet. In late December of 1999, he eluded his communist Chinese minders, who prevented him from undertaking most of his traditional studies and teaching activities, and escaped over the Himalaya mountains to exile in India. He celebrated his eighteenth birthday on June 26, 2003.
Claims by his supporters
After the death of the 16th Karmapa, his four 'heart-sons' — Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche — had agreed to form a council of regents to take joint responsibility for the spiritual affairs of the Karma Kagyu lineage, alternating as the regent for the Karmapa every three years.
Supporters of Urgyen Trinley Dorje claim that his birth and parentage are consistent with the prediction by Chogyur Lingpa who it is claimed had prophetic visions of various events in the lives of the 14th through the 21st Karmapas. Especially that the minds of Tai Situ Rinpoche and the 17th Karmapa 'are inseparably joined as one'. The Kagyu lama Thrangu Rinpoche is quoted as saying:
- ...when I was with the 16th Karmapa, he wrote a prediction letter about his reincarnation when he was on his way to India from Tibet. After he arrived at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, he also wrote a letter in poetic form predicting his reincarnation. I had read both the letters myself. The first of the two letters stated clearly that Urgyen Trinley Dorje of Tibet is the 17th Karmapa. The second letter written in Rumtek, which I had read, again stated clearly that Urgyen Trinley Dorje of Tibet is the 17th Karmapa.
Thrangu Rinpoche gives further details of the two prediction letters. The first letter was written by the 16th Karmapa when he was in Tibet. After his arrival in Sikkim, he asked a printing company to print copies of this two-page letter and many had the chance to read this letter. The second letter was written in Rumtek, Sikkim and this time 50 copies were made. Both letters mention the return of the 16th reincarnation to Tibet. However according to Thrangu Rinpoche, it is not these two letters, but a prediction document that Sharma Rinpoche wanted to be forensically examined.
In January of 1981 the 16th Karmapa gave the 12th Tai Situpa an amulet with a brocade cover, and said, "This is your protection amulet. In the future, it will confer great benefit." In 1992 Tai Situpa opened the amulet and found that it contained the disputed prediction letter. This letter said that the karmapa was to be reborn "to the north, in the east of the land of snow." This was interpreted at the March 1992 meeting of the council of the four seat holders to mean that he would be reborn in eastern Tibet (north of Rumtek). The letter is reproduced on the kaygu office website
According to the kagyu office website
- After consideration of the evidence and additional meetings with Their Eminences Tai Situ Rinpoche, Tsurphu Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Shamar Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama granted the Buktham Rinpoche, the official notification of the Dalai Lama's approval of the identity of His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa.
Supporters of Urgyen Trinley Dorje claim that in late 1999 he decided that the restrictions placed on him by the PRC government at Tsurphu Monastery limited his ability to teach his disciples and receive teachings from lineage masters. He found a way to evade the Chinese authorities and made his way to Nepal and then on to Dharamsala arriving January 5, 2000. Futher details of the escape were given in a press statement.
Thaye Dorje was born on the 6th of May 1983 in Lhasa, Tibet. His father was Mipham Rinpoche, a re-incarnation of an important lama of the Nyingmapa school. In October 1986 Czobgje Tri Rinpoche from the Sakya school contacted the Shamarpa and informed him about the dream he had and a relative of his from Lhasa who brought a picture of a child which reportedly announced that he is the Karpama. In 1988 Lobpyn Tsechu Rinpoche was sent to bring more information about the child and also an unnamed lama was sent to meet with the family and the boy without revealing his identity. However, upon meeting with the emissary the boy promptly said 'You were sent here for me' thus identifying him. This, along with other evidence has convinced the Shamarpa that this boy is indeed the reincarnation of the late 16th Karmapa. In March 1994 Thaye Dorje escaped with his family from Tibet and traveled to New Delhi where he was formally recognized during a welcoming ceremony.
Claims by his supporters
Thaye Dorje supporters claim that traditionally it was Shamarpa who recognized the Karmapa, and therefore no other recognition is required or even valid. They also accuse Tai Situpa of forging the letter which he produced as written by 16th Karmapa and containing the clues about his new incarnation. Therefore they demand the letter to be verified by independent experts including graphologists – which Tai Situpa has denied to do.
Thaye Dorje supporters also point out that Dalai Lama’s recognition is not necessary for Karmapa and is in fact part of the rival Gelug school’s plot to dominate all other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Even so, according to Tomek Lehnert’s book, Dalai Lama was tricked into recognizing Urgyen Trinley by Tai Situpa who told him that all Kagyu regents agree he is the right candidate – which was not true at that time. However, because of his position Dalai Lama is unable to admit that he was tricked and retract his approval as it would damage his image.
Finally, Thaye Dorje supporters claim that Tai Situpa and Urgyen Trinley are puppets in the hands of the government of communist China which plans to use Urgyen Trinley to tighten its grip on Tibet. According to them China plans to place “his” Karmapa as spiritual leader of Tibet after the current Dalai Lama passes away. This would allow them to change Tibetan Buddhism into another state religion – something they already have done with Catholicism.
Lama Ole Nydahl says that time will show which of the boys is indeed the Karmapa as candidate's actions would confirm whether he is the reincarnation or not. He and other lamas that support Thaye Dorje call for the boys to meet and discuss this between themselves, but so far Urgyen Trinley has refused to meet with Thaye Dorje.
On July 5, 2004, the Indian High Court decided finally that Karmapa's exile seat in India, the monastery Rumtek in the Indian state of Sikkim, belongs to the Karmapa Charitable Trust , which is run by the 14th Shamarpa on behalf Karmapa Thaye Dorje.
Some detractors have suggested that the Shamarpa has followers in high places who may have influenced the court's decision. Therefore, this controversy is expected to continue. In fact, the decision might serve to attract additional attention by the Western media to the situation.
- BBC News story: Who is the Karmapa Lama?
- Trouble in Purelands, reprinted from Buddhism Today vol 3 (Thaye Dorje side)
- Home Page of Karmapa (Thaye Dorje) http://www.karmapa.org
- Kagyu Office website: official web home of the Karmapa (Urgyen Trinley Dorje) http://www.kagyuoffice.org
- The Karmapa Issue website: information on the controversy (Thaye Dorje side) 
- Interview with Thrangu Rinpoche on the Karmapa controversy (on the Urgyen Trinley Dorje side) 
- A Gateway to many Tibetan Buddhist sites of all sects 
- The site of the Tai Situpa 
- His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje, Ken Holmes. Altea Publishing 1995, ISBN 0952455544. Details of previous Karmapas as well.
- Rogues in Robes An Inside Chronicle of a Recent Chinese-Tibetan Intrigue in the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Diamond Way Buddhism, Tomek Lehnert, Blue Dolphin Publishing, 2000, ISBN 1577330269. A book about the 17th Karmapa controversy on the Thaye Dorje side.
- Wrestling the Dragon: in search of the Boy Lama who defied China, Gaby Naher, Random House, Sydney, 2004, ISBN 1740512790. A biography of Urgyen Trinley Dorje.
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