golden dorje

The Discovery of the New Karmapa

- A Himalayan Intrigue:  -

golden dorje

Published in Tricycle, New York, 1992.

On June 17th 1992, a seven year-old nomad boy from the steppes of Eastern Tibet was installed as one of Central Asia's great  religious hierarchs. The child, Ugyen Thinley, was recognized as the Seventeenth Gyelwa Karmapa. His predecessors had been the Guru Lamas of Kublai Khan and successive Mongol Chinese Emperors and, before the Dalai Lamas, virtual rulers of Tibet. They were Buddhas in the guise of sacred magicians, high priests, and god-kings. They were princes of an immensely wealthy theocratic establishment. The recognition of the Karmapa was greeted with exultation and delight, rejoicing and relief, in Tibet, across the Himalayas, amongst Tibetan communities in exile and amongst devotees of the Karmapa throughout the world. The ceremony itself was attended by thousands of Tibetan people.

This event was doubly remarkable because a Karmapa again presided at his Tsurphu monastery, the traditional seat of the Karmapas in Central Tibet. The Sixteenth Karmapa went into exile in India with his followers, ritual appurtenances and wealth in 1959, during the Chinese invasion of Tibet. With him went his primary sign of office, his Black Hat, reputed to have been been woven from the body hair of female Buddhas. Thereafter, the great monastery citadel of Tsurphu, located at about 14,500 feet in a desolate yet beautiful valley some fifty miles to the north-west of Lhasa, was destroyed by the Chinese Army in 1966. A substitute seat was built at Rumtek, near Gangtok, in Sikkim, and the activity of educating tulkus and monks, blessing and comforting lay devotees, and also proselytizing in the West, had proceeded successfully under the powerful and benign gaze of the previous Karmapa. But now the dharma of the Karma Kagyu school had returned to the place of its origin. Surely this was reason for all Tibetans to rejoice. Unfortunately, political controversy and metaphysical doubt were to blight this event.


It had been eleven long years since the previous Karmapa had died of cancer in a hospital bed in Chicago in Illinois at the age of 56, and there had been increasing apprehension about the ability of his regents to discover the new incarnation. Lay pressure groups were demanding quick action to identify a new Karmapa. Further, the press had reported accounts of disturbing events occurring at the Karmapa's seat of exile at Rumtek. These reports indicated dissension regarding the Karmapa's identity amongst those appointed by the previous Karmapa to administer his temporal estate and spiritual parish. Factional intrigue had apparently reached the point of physical violence. Rumor and doubt were rife within the Tibetan and Western Karma Kagyu communities

The Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpai Dorje, had been a man of extraordinary charisma and personal power. In the twenty-three years of his exile he had established a flourishing monastic academy at Rumtek, hundreds of meditation centers around the world and an international parish consisting of a multitude of individuals who acknowledged his spiritual authority - from Indira Gandhi to David Bowie. In his lifetime his seat in the United States was established at the Karma Triyana Dharma Centre in Woodstock, New York, and his spiritual authority was recognized by the disciples of the Late Kalu Rimpoche and Chogyam Trungpa, who hosted the Karmapa's first visit to the United States in 1976. He left his vast wealth in property and chattels in the hands of the Karmapa Charitable Trust governed by a board of trustees. His spiritual power was inherited by four young tulkus, who would be regents until the Karmapa's successor came of age at eighteen.

In the twelfth century, the first Karmapa had been the first Lama to adopt succession by reincarnation as a spiritual and temporal device by which continuity of his line could be assured. There was precedent in both India and Tibet for the recognition of particular realized beings taking rebirth for a special purpose. The Karmapas, spiritual heirs to Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa, were the first to institutionalize the spiritual principle of a Bodhisattva returning to samsara for the sake of all sentient beings. According to tradition, putative successive Karmapa incarnations were identified in a literary missive, a Letter of Intimation, written by the living Karmapa. This letter could indicate precisely where his successor would be born. In general this method proved successful down the centuries, although there have been instances of conflicting interpretations and resulting rival candidatures.

Few literary indications were to prove so ambiguous, however, as that accepted by the regents as the Sixteenth Karmapa's Letter of Intimation. The short four-line verse appeared only to exhort his disciples to the practice of Mahamudra - the highest form of yoga-tantra - to expedite his rebirth. The lack of further indication was the principal cause of the long failure to identify a Seventeenth Karmapa. There were political difficulties too. In the light of the Chinese record of treatment of high lamas, particularly the Panchen Lama, who had remained in Tibet as guardian of Lamaism when the Dalai Lama fled to India, was it wise to identify a Karmapa born in a Chinese controlled area? Surely the Chinese would seek to influence and control the child.

Inevitably, the personalities of the regents - the four young tulkus whose responsibility it was to recognize a successor to their Guru-Buddha - formed a crucial element in the scenario. The Shamarpa, a nephew of the Sixteenth Karmapa, had the dominant influence in Rumtek, the Karmapa's seat, and he also had temporary residence in Kathmandu, at the Swayambhu monastery of Sabchu Rimpoche, and also in Delhi. His mind possessed an ironic and realistic bent with a forward looking perspective. Tai Situ, on the other hand, was more of the traditional savant and ritualist lama, highly competent and popular. He was based at his monastery at Bir in the Kangra Valley (Himachal Pradesh, India). A rift having its origin in their school days had now developed between these two most influential of the four regents, widening until the regency was deeply divided between the Shamarpa on one side and Tai Situ and Gyeltsap Tulku on the other. Jamgon Kongtrul, the fourth of the quorum of players on this Himalayan stage, had long acted as mediator between them.


To return to the sequence of events after the Sixteenth Karmapa's death in 1981: the four regents had accepted responsibility for the identification of the Karmapa and in 1985 revealed the Karmapa's Letter of Intimation. This gave them no substantial data to act upon. In 1990 the Shamarpa had a visionary dream indicating Lake Namtso, north of Lhasa, as the area in which the Karmapa had taken rebirth. He journeyed there, but could find no manifest sign. In the same year there was increasing pressure from Tibetan lay factions for an early discovery of the Karmapa. Here, Tobga Rimpoche, the General Secretary of the Rumtek Trust that administers the Karmapa's multi-million dollar estate, entered the picture together with a lay group based in Kathmandu called the Thirteen Family Derge Group. By skillfully fuelling the potent Tibetan rumor mill, various Byzantine intrigues were played out between these antagonists. The most pernicious rumor was that a member of the Bhutanese Royal family, supported by the Shamarpa, was the principal candidate to the throne. This rumor was to persist, much to the Shamarpa's detriment.

In March 1992 Tai Situ requested a meeting of the regents in Rumtek. At this meeting - which Tai Situ seems to have dominated - a long-awaited breakthrough occurred. After prostrating thrice to the Karmapa's throne, Tai Situ produced a second Letter of Intimation from a protection pouch that he averred had been given to him by the Karmapa in 1981. This amulet (sunga) had hung around his neck for most of the intervening years, a fact attested to by the sweat stains on the contents. His long failure to examine this gift from the Karmapa as a possible source of intimation regarding a reincarnation, he explained merely by a lapse of memory. The letter within explicitly stated the new Karmapa's birthplace, his parent's names and other details. It concluded with the Karmapa's signature and seal.

The Shamarpa was not inclined to accept this letter as authentic and sought to keep its existence and contents concealed. In the next few months, Tai Situ, over-riding the principle of unanimity amongst the regents, publicized the letter's contents and remained intent on having his candidate recognized. The Derge Group wrote to centers around the world promoting Tai Situ's canditade. The pronounced failure of the regents to meet and obtain a consensus is evidence of the acrimony that existed between them. The tension continued despite the tragic and most lamentable death of Jamgon Kongtrul in a road accident in India on April 26th. His death was followed by unfounded rumors of foul play, both factions claiming him as their erstwhile ally. The delegation that Jamgon Kongtrul had been about to lead to Tibet to locate the Khampa child mentioned in the letter then departed to fulfil its task without him. This delegation was successful in identifying the boy according to every last detail given in the letter.

The struggle of the regents reached its climax in an unseemly incident at Rumtek on June 12th, five days before Ugyen Thinley arrived at Tsurphu. While Tai Situ and Gyeltsap Tulku were in Dharamsala claiming Kagyu unanimity to obtain the Dalai Lama's verification of their candidate, the Shamarpa arrived in Rumtek and martialled his forces. Speaking with strong personal feeling, he explained publicly his doubt about the authenticity of the letter, particularly the handwriting and the signature. He had given a copy to forensic authorities in America, England and Germany, and although nothing final could be said about the duplicate he had tested, in his view Tai Situ was trying to manipulate an unproven candidate onto the Karmapa's throne. The following day two bus-loads of heavyweight Khampas left Kathmandu for Rumtek with the avowed intent of convincing the Shamarpa of the error of his views. At the same time the Government of India deputed an army unit to protect the Shamarpa at Rumtek. This unit arrived the next morning.

Later that day, June 12th, Tai Situ and Gyeltsap Tulku returned from Dharamsala and immediately addressed the Rumtek crowds. They presented their case, celebrating the discovery of the Seventeenth Karmapa while defending their actions in the process of identification. When Shamarpa accompanied by his army escort decided to confront the situation down at the monastery, he was greeted by violent opposition. In the intensity of the moment it appears that it was disaffected monastery employees and Tibetans outraged by the Indian Army intrusion who attacked the Shamarpa's escort. An army captain and a member of the monastery staff sustained superficial injury during this fracas. Tai Situ retreated upstairs and the Shamarpa retired to his quarters.

To the amazement of many devotees, this Rumtek Gompa farce displayed apparent human vanity and passion in a relationship between Incarnate Buddhas. What appeared to be samsaric emotion was evidently unfettered in an intense personal and political situation. To anyone familiar with the nature of Tibetan religious politics, however, it came as no great surprise. There were rival candidates for the throne of the Sixteenth Karmapa, a struggle resolved only when the first choice - the son of a Gelugpa minister - died after a fall from a Tsurphu rooftop. Compared to the bloody struggle in Kham between Gelugpa and Red-Hat monks after the establishment of theocracy by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, the pushing and shoving in Rumtek was a restrained demonstration.

The conflict between the regents was satisfactorily, though only partially, resolved by a mediator, a "grandfather" Lama respected by all parties. Urgyen Tulku of Boudhanath in Kathmandu, arrived in Rumtek and induced the Shamarpa to accept the Khampa boy as the principal candidate to the Karmapa's throne. Urgyen Tulku attempted to give the regents a placid perspective on events by assuring them that the authentic Karmapa would himself resolve the apparent deadlock. At this time the Shamarpa formally recognized Ugyen Thinley while privately maintaining reservations. This recognition was subsequently confirmed by the majority of Kagyu tulkus.

The Shamarpa's reservations were now to be held in the face of the Dalai Lama's concurrence in the majority view. When Tai Situ and Gyeltsap Tulku had gone to Dharamsala on June 7th, the Dalai Lama was in Rio de Janeiro attending the Earth Summit. In a faxed message they had informed the Dalai Lama of the discovery of the second Letter of Intimation and its contents and of the existence of the child Ugyen Thinley in Kham. They had left Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama's faxed acceptance of their candidate. Later in the month the three regents visited the Dalai Lama in person and proffered him their views. He confirmed, unequivocally, his previous decision, accepting Tai Situ and Gyeltsap Tulku's evidence and identity of the Kham candidate and rejected Shamarpa's private reservations. The Dalai Lamas had possessed the final authority of recognition of the Karmapas since the latters' political overthrow in the seventeenth century. Now that authority was being applied judiciously and impartially.


In the days and weeks thereafter, fabulous stories of the birth and childhood of the Seventeenth Karmapa began to spread and the mythology of his birth was established. His conception was marked by the cry of a hawk circling the tent where his parents lay. While pregnant his mother had dreamed of three white cranes offering her a bowl of yoghurt. She had also dreamed of Guru Rimpoche presenting her a letter that promised her a son with a long life. Just before his birth in a small nomad encampment on the plateau, a cuckoo, a holy bird, sang, and at the very moment of his birth the first rays of the morning sun entered the black yak-hair tent where his mother had labored. Three days after his birth the sound of a conch and cymbals resounded spontaneously in the sky for some hours and was audible to everyone in the area. Finally, when the party sent to bring the Karmapa back to Tsurphu arrived, four suns were seen to rise over the important town of Chamdo to the east.

As indicated in the second Letter of Intimation, the Karmapa's parents were cattle herding nomads living in a black yak-hair tent on the plateau-steppes in the area called Lhathok. Lhathok was formerly a small kingdom, located to the north of Derge, the principal town of Kham. Unlike his predecessor, the Seventeenth Karmapa was born into a poor, uneducated family. He is the eighth of nine siblings, six sisters and two brothers, one of whom is older one younger.

Indications that the mother was to bear a remarkable son were evident before the child's birth. A local yogi, Jamyang Trakpa, who had accompanied Khamtrul Rimpoche to exile to Tashi Jong in India, on a visit back to Tibet had left a robe with the family with the assurance that he would return for it one day. After his death, the family assumed that the newborn Ugyen Thinley was his incarnation. He was taken to the local monastery, Kaleb Gompa, a Karma Kagyu establishment, and there at the age of four he was given monk's ordination. He was not, however, recognized as any specific incarnation. Word spread of the existence of this remarkable child. Jamgon Kongtrul would probably have heard of him during his 1990 trip to Kham. Subsequently a consensus upon the wisdom of recognizing this boy as the Karmapa could have been reached within the Tai Situ circle.

Few who have had the good fortune to meet the new Karmapa, who have seen the video of him, or indeed have seen his picture, have doubted that the child is quite extraordinary - sufficiently remarkable to be such a high incarnation. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is his perceptivity, the insight that accompanies his sensory perceptions, and his existential discrimination in the situations in which he discovers himself. He may be slow to verbalize, but his reactions are like lightening. At the present moment he appears to be a child whose intuition rather than study and intellect will endow him with the qualities of a Gyelwa Karmapa. However, he has yet to imprint his foot in stone - to establish himself by conclusive demonstration of his spiritual power.


What, then, of the Shamarpa's doubts and misgivings? Firstly, a majority of regents, the Dalai Lama and most of the Karma Kagyu tulkus, have accepted the Letter and the candidate it identifies. For every reason, there is a strong reluctance to discredit Tai Situ. However, the matter of the second Letter of Intimation may still be disposed of by admitting doubt. It is conceivable that the handwriting and signature is not that of the Sixteenth Karmapa. Tai Situ's well-intentioned discovery of the letter can be justified as a genuine attempt to give traditionally valid support to the obvious candidate. Discussion can then revolve around the wisdom of priests contriving handles of faith for the devout. Secondly, the possibility of multiple candidates and uncertain identity can be entertained in the light of the notion that there is not one single Karmapa reborn in this world, but a multiplicity of Karmapas. The Sixteenth Karmapa himself once taught that he would manifest eight hundred incarnations. The difficulty is then to determine the most suitable candidate to deal with the problems of the next generation. Some would advocate an academic Karmapa who could assimilate the concepts of modern physics and psychology into the dharma. Some would support a philosopher-logician, others an ascetic renunciate meditator - a Milarepa, others a crazy yogi, and yet others an able administrator. There is doctrinal precedent for the idea of multiple candidates.

Whereas Tai Situ believes he has discovered the fated incarnation in Ugyen Thinley, thereby satisfying the craving of devotees for an object of devotion in this lineage that leans most heavily on faith as a support to meditation, privately the Shamarpa expects the discovery of a further Letter of Intimation or another candidate to manifest himself. This expectation is reinforced by the foreboding that the Chinese will not allow the present candidate to leave Tibet. A paranoid scenario for the future presents the Karmapa as a political pawn in the hands of the manipulative imperialist, atheist Chinese. Others may consider an impressionable young Karmapa exposed to Rumtek politicians and fanatical western devotees as the worst case scenario. At least at Tsurphu he would be educated in a more traditional, congenial and ascetic ambience, where he could obtain the meditation retreat experience denied his regents. But the Chinese may choose to prove their professed religious liberality in Tibet by allowing the Karmapa to come and go at will. On September 27th he will have received his ritual enthronement at Tsurphu, the first major ceremony performed under Chinese auspices. The question of whether an exit visa will be granted him to permit attendance at a further installation at Rumtek, where he will take possession of his Black Hat, remains unanswered at the time of writing.

Devotees watching from afar the tragi-comedy played out by the regents in the last few months have been placed in a situation of intense meditative potency. Above all they have been exhorted by the Sixteenth Karmapa in the first Letter of Intimation to practice mahamudra meditation. This can support the nondual view in which the temptation to take sides and join the emotive fray can be avoided. The events described above will appear as an illusory dance called "identifying the Karmapa" or maybe simply "a political folly". Here is an opportunity to transform, through detachment, a political scenario into a Buddhafield.

There will be those skeptics - Tibetans and Westerners - who can believe only that the events mentioned above have arisen out of ignorance and vanity. They will contend that the realities of power politics are the flesh and bones of all such situations and that mystical explanations are merely the stuff fed to believers to support their faith. The priestcraft of Tibetan Lamas, they will say, is no less pernicious because of its inimical efficiency. The stakes are indeed enormous - control over scores of millions of dollars of assets, power over millions of minds and hearts, and the spiritual authority generated by intense and unremitting adulation and devotion. It is indeed regretable that mundane and materialistic vision has been lent support by the political wrangling at Rumtek. But surely the faith that sustains the aspiration of a Marpa or Milarepa will survive it.

Sarva Mangalam!
May all beings be happy!