The recognition of the Seventeenth Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, has been the subject of controversy. Since the death of the sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, in 1981, two candidates have been put forward:
Both have already been enthroned as 17th Karmapa, and both independently have been performing ceremonial duties in the role of a Karmapa. They have not met, though both have expressed a willingness and desire to meet. The situation has led to deep division among Kagyu followers all over the world. As one academic expert in the field testified in court, while the recognition of Urgyen Trinley "appears to have been accepted by a majority of Karma Kagyu monasteries and lamas, there remains a substantial minority of monasteries and lamas who have not accepted Urgyen Trinley as Karmapa. In particular, these include the Shamar Rinpoche, who historically has been the person most directly involved in the process of recognition. It is difficult to produce an objective description of the events because the most important developments are known only from conflicting accounts by those involved.
The Karmapa lineage is the most ancient tulku lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, pre-dating the Dalai Lama lineage by more than two centuries. The lineage is an important one as the Karmapa is traditionally the head of the Karma Kagyu school, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
All concerned parties were agreed upon identifying Ogyen Trinley Dorje as a 17th Karmapa as long ago as June 1992, however Mipham Chokyi Lodro (the 14th Sharmapa) subsequently changed his mind and ever since has been the only one of the four chief lineage holders recognised by the 16th Karmapa or Ogyen Trinley Dorje to insist upon identifying an alternative person as a 17th Karmapa.
Karmapas have often been self-recognizing. That means that many incarnations (at least seven out of sixteen) claimed very early in life to be Karmapa, recognizing associates and colleagues of the previous incarnation. Also, each Karmapa has left indications leading to his next re-birth, often 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 who have been closely associated with the previous incarnation and will have to raise and teach the new one.
The process of recognition has involved several different lamas since the first recognition in the early 13th century. Geoffrey Samuel writes that, "From the late 14th century onwards until the 1790s, the primary responsibility for recognising and enthroning the Karmapa normally belong to the Shamarpa." The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Karmapas were recognised by individual followers of the early Karmapas, rather than by any tulku. The Shamarpa recognised the 5th, 6th, 9th (together with Tai Situ), 10th, 11th, and (via a search party) 12th Karmapas. Tai Situ recognised the 8th, 9th (together with the Shamarpa), 14th, and (together with Jamgon Kongtrul) 16th Karmapas. Gyaltsab Rinpoche recognised the 7th and 13th Karmapas, and the 15th Karmapa was recognised by the 9th Drukchen of the Drukpa Kagyu.
In the 1790s, shortly before the recognition of the 14th Karmapa, the Tibetan government in Lhasa banned the Shamarpa from reincarnating as a result of alleged political intrigues. The Karmapa continued to recognize reincarnations of the Shamarpa, but they of necessity lived in secret and were not available to recognise the Karmapas. This ban became irrelevant when the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa both fled Tibet in the late 1950s. The ban was formally lifted in 1963.
Samuel points out that, in the cases of the 7th and 13th Karmapas, the Shamarpa of that time had died at around the same time as the previous Karmapa, meaning that there was no adult Shamarpa available to take part in the recognition. Thus, Samuel argues that "the only real exception" to the Shamarpa's preeminent role, prior to his banning, was in the recognition of the 8th Karmapa in 1506. Tai Situ has been the next most actively involved in recognising Karmapas, including two of the three recognised between 1790 and 1963.
All four senior lineage holders (the Shamarpa, the Tai Situpa, Jamgon Kongtrul, and Goshir Gyaltsab) in 1986 conspired to deceive their followers about the existence of a reincarnation prediction letter from the 16th Karmapa. As one historian has related:They had simply recalled a poem, copied it, and placed it in a box. As some people well remembered, the lineage holders claimed to have discovered two letters, one inside the other ... Subsequently, they had engaged the whole Kagyu world in scrupulous rites and infinite mantras to allow for the second letter to be opened. However, it was all a product of their fantasy. The first and the second letter didn't exist.Ever since His Holiness passed away in 1981, the four [Karmapa regents] had been devotedly searching for [his] written instructions about his next incarnation. ... One day they came across a special gau -a relic box- that belonged to His Holiness; they fixed it on the altar and ... stated that they had found the prediction letter inside it. Feeling a bit guilty that people would prostrate to an empty box, they decided to place one of Karmapa's texts, a poem or something spiritual in the gau. Gyaltsab Rinpoche knew a four-verse meditation prayer that His Holiness had composed at his request. Jamgon Kongtrul wrote it down and the four put it in the relic case ... [T]he regents announced they had located [it] in 1986.
The first born Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje, has been recognized by H.H. Shamar Rinpoche - the senior lama in the Karma Kagyu hierarchy below the Karmapas themselves.
H.E. Beru Khentse Rinpoche holds a distinctly minority view, saying he believes both Karmapas are legitimate. He states "it is possible that there can be two Karmapas in order to benefit sentient beings because the Karmapa can manifest in many different forms" and writes that the 14th Karmapa highlighted that "in many universes a hundred million Karmapas have manifested. The Karmapa is also the Buddha's emanation, thus until all the thousand Buddhas have come and their doctrine is not diminishing, my activity of the Karmapa emanations will not end. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche said that "as far as my father [i.e., Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche] was concerned, they were both to be respected and perceived with pure appreciation.
For followers on both sides of this controversy, the issue is painful. Both sides pray that the rightful Karmapa may be able to do his dharmic duties and teachings. Karma Kagyu teachers such as Ole Nydahl have said that the spiritual realization of the Karmapas and their worthiness as reincarnations will be shown clearly by their future actions.
Ogyen 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 took initiative to migrate over the Himalaya mountains to residence in India, leaving a letter in Tsurphu Monastery stating that he needed to study certain rituals from some lamas of the lineage who were in India at the time, and he needed to take the Black Crown left by the previous Karmapa in Rumtek monastery in Sikkim. The trip was also said to be triggered by the news that Trinley Thaye Dorje was also on his way to the Rumtek monastery. Ogyen Trinley Dorje celebrated his twenty-first birthday on June 26, 2006.
Supporters of Ogyen 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. Many believe that Lingpa's statement that the minds of Tai Situpa and Karmapa "are inseparably joined as one" refers to the 17th Karmapa and current Tai Situ Rinpoche. "The description ... is meant to show there is disagreement in this reincarnation and the mind of the 17th Karmapa and the mind of Tai Situ Rinpoche are inseparable from each other," explains the Kagyu lama Thrangu Rinpoche, who is one of Ogyen Trinley Dorje's tutors. Although according to Thrangu Rinpoche the 16th Karmapa left two letters specifying a rebirth in Tibet, it is yet another prediction document, hidden in a locket and given to Tai Situ, that has prompted criticism from the rival claimant's camp. Supporters of Thaye Dorje have contended that Tai Situ Rinpoche fabricated this letter; to date he has refused requests to have it scientifically analyzed, claiming this would be a violation of a sacred object.
However it has been persuasively argued that the prediction was already fulfilled with the 16th Karmapa who, in the most accurate sense, was the 17th. This is supported by Chogyur Lingpa's life story, where he explains that one Karmapa died too early to be enthroned, and that as to Chogyur Lingpa's view, he needs to be included when enumerating the Karmapas. As Chogyur Lingpa is also the source of the prediction, the argument has persuasive force and it holds true that the described event of the prediction took place between the then Karmapa and Situpa during the life of the 16th Karmapa.
In January of 1981, nine months before his death, the 16th Karmapa gave the 12th Tai Situpa an amulet with a yellow brocade cover, telling him, "This is your protection amulet. In the future, it will confer great benefit." Although Tai Situpa wore the locket on a gold chain for about a year after the Karmapa's death, he moved it to a side pocket, not realizing its significance or that it contained a message. In 1989, following an intuition, Tai Situpa opened the amulet and found the third prediction letter, inside an envelope marked "Open in the Iron Horse Year." The letter said that the Karmapa was to be reborn "to the north, in the east of the land of snow," and when interpreted at the March 1992 meeting of the council of the four regents, was taken to mean that he would be reborn in a specific valley in eastern Tibet. The letter is reproduced on the Kagyu Office website, and reads in part:
Ogyen Trinley Dorje's mother's name is Loga; his father's name is Karma Döndrub Tashi, a name given to him by the 16th Karmapa. Although the search party sent to find him did not yet know it, both of Ogyen Trinley Dorje's parents' names were closely predicted in the letter produced by Tai Situpa. According to Michele Martin, the letter was interpreted to mean he would be "born ... in the area of Lhathok, which translates as 'divine (lha) thunder (thog).' The name of the remote nomadic community where Ogyen Trinley Dorje was born is Bagor, of which ba means 'cow.' The next line indicates his parents, where the masculine principle method refers to his father Döndrub, and the feminine principle wisdom refers to his mother Lolaga. The one used for the earth points to an animal that plows, and Ogyen Trinley Dorje was born in the year of the Wood Ox (1985). The far-reaching sound of the white one indicates the sound of the conch shell that miraculously resounded in the sky for hours after the Karmapa's birth."
On September 27 1992, Ogyen Trinley Dorje was formally enthroned at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, the traditional seat of the Karmapas, in a ceremony attended by 20,000 people. He lived in Tsurphu another seven years. In late 1999, 14-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje decided that the restrictions placed on him by the PRC government at Tsurphu limited his ability to teach his disciples and receive teachings from lineage masters. He made a daring escape over the Himalayas in the middle of winter, evading Chinese authorities and making his way through Nepal and on to Dharamsala, India, arriving on January 5, 2000.
Analysts have speculated that this retreat to India was predicted by the 16th Karmapa in his 1940 work entitled "A Song":
According to interpretation, the "spring...cuckoo" is equated to the cuckoo that landed on the tent where Ogyen Trinley Dorje was born - one of the miraculous signs said to accompany his birth. The "fall...harvest" is interpreted as Ogyen Trinley Dorje's adult travel "east" to "India." Above all, the supplication to Tai Situ Rinpoche and the prayer to "meet again and again" strongly suggests to his supporters that he is indeed the legitimate tulku.
Thaye Dorje was born on the 6th of May 1983 in Lhasa, Tibet. His father is Mipham Rinpoche, the reincarnation of a very important lama of the Nyingma school. In October 1986 Chobgye Tri Rinpoche, senior Sakya master and head of one of the three Sakya lineages, contacted the Shamarpa and informed him about a dream he had had and about a relative of his from Lhasa who brought a picture of a child who reportedly and repeatedly announced that he was the Karmapa. In 1988 Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche was sent to bring more information about the child. Later an unnamed lama was sent to meet with the family and the boy without revealing the real purpose of his visit. Upon meeting with the emissary the boy promptly said "You were sent here for me." This along with other evidence convinced the Shamarpa that the boy was indeed the reincarnation of the late 16th Karmapa. In March 1994 Thaye Dorje escaped with his family from Tibet and travelled to New Delhi where he was formally recognized during a welcoming ceremony. He took monastic ordination from Chobgye Tri Rinpoche and is at present undergoing a very intensive education under the guidance of Shamar Rinpoche, also studying under teachers such as Prof. Sempa Dorje, Khenpo Chödrak Rinpoche and others. He also travels extensively in the East and the West.
Supporters also accuse Tai Situpa of forging the letter ostensibly written by the 16th Karmapa and hidden in a locket, containing clues about his new incarnation. They have requested that the letter be verified by independent experts including forensic document examiners. Tai Situ has thus far refused to allow this because handwriting analysis is primarily a Western area of study and accurate handwriting analysis of Tibetan script simply does not exist. Forensic analysis is also not a traditional part of the recognition process.
Well aware of Chogyur Lingpa's predictions about the 17th Karmapas, supporters of Thaye Dorje suggest the prediction was already fulfilled with the 16th Karmapa, who actually was the 17th, even though only 16 had been officially enthroned. This claim may sound odd, but is supported by Chogyur Lingpa's life story, where he explains that one Karmapa died too early to be enthroned, and that as to Chogyur Lingpa's view, he needs to be included when listing the Karmapas.
Although followers of Ogyen Trinley Dorje point out that he was the only candidate enthroned in Tibet, both claimants were born in Tibet and so the prediction about the return to Tibet within these two letters is fulfilled by both claimants.
As has been verified in the context of a law case in New Zealand by Prof. Geoffrey Samuel, the Dalai Lama’s recognition is not necessary for the Karmapas. At the same time, Tomek Lehnert's book claims the Dalai Lama was tricked into recognizing Ogyen Trinley by Tai Situpa who told him that all four Kagyu regents agreed he was the right candidate.
Control of Rumtek Monastery, which was the seat of the 16th Karmapa in exile, has been the subject of a legal contest. In 1961 the 16th Karmapa established the Karmapa Charitable Trust. Ogyen Trinley's followers claimed that the trust was solely established for the sake of seeing to the welfare of the Karmapa's followers, providing funds for the maintenance of the monastery, and for the monks' medical fees, but that administration of the monastery was the responsibility of the Tsurphu Labrang. The Indian Supreme Court is currently considering a related case.
According to both the official Shamarpa website and an official Ogyen Trinley Dorje website, Ogyen Trinley Dorje met with the Shamarpa in the Oberoi International Hotel in New Delhi on 9 January, 2007. Ogyen Trinley Dorje had mentioned his desire to meet the Shamarpa, and requested Chökyi Nyima arrange a personal meeting with him. The Shamarpa had declined the first invitation in 2005, which was received by telephone call from Drigung Chetsang Rinpoche, because to have accepted it "at that time would invite unwarranted suspicions from the India government upon himself." According to Dawa Tsering, spokesperson for the administration of Shamar Rinpoche, "He (Urgyen Trinley Dorje) was confident that this meeting would bring peace in the Kagyu School in general and thus help in flourishing Buddha Dharma. This meeting has created a basis to re-unite all in the Dharma Sangha. Therefore, such an initiative should be appreciated by all."
Centres and monasteries
Statements, interviews, documentaries, background material
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