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Home » Religion » The Karmapa Controversies

A quick glance at events from years 1995 to 1999

Rumtek monks go on hunger strike

On 8 August, 1995, Topga Yulgyal and the Kagyu monks marched peacefully towards Rumtek to regain their place of worship. Situ Rinpoche alleged that Topga Yulgyal brought a convoy of about eight trucks, crammed with about 200 men to take over the Rumtek monastery by force. The intruders preceded their attack by cutting off all the telephone lines in the monastery. They were met with force and denied entry to their cloister.

Situ Rinpoche has a different tale to tell. According to him, when the men brought by Topga entered about 500 yards into the compound of the monastery, the residents realised what was going on. The Rumtek residents lined both sides of the road and stood in front of the attackers, singing prayers. Then the Sikkim police intervened and did not allow them to proceed to the monastery. In order to protest against the continuing occupation of Rumtek, the monks started an indefinite hunger strike at the gates to the temple. Two months later, with no prospects of winning the place back, the strike was called off.

On the night of 11 September, three monks suddenly appeared at a secluded place while Tsewang Chorden, representative of the laity in Rumtek, in his sixties, was returning home. He had served the 16th Karmapa and his family. Three monks shouted, “It is him, it is him” and attacked him. He fainted. When he regained consciousness, he found himself lying in the ditch next to the road with multiple injuries. He was taken to the hospital where he remained for a fortnight. The old man recognised one of the assailants known as Patru.

Rumtek today remains in the hands of outsiders while the monks, living the lives of refugees, are still prevented from returning to their homes.

In March of 1996 an International Karma Kagyu Conference took place in KIBI, New Delhi. The conference was convened at the request of the Rumtek monastic community. Representatives from a few Kagyu monasteries in the region as well as from numerous Kagyu centres around the world participated in the meeting. Shamar Rinpoche acquainted the guests with the background of his recognition of Thaye Dorje as the 17th incarnation of Karmapa.

See records for this meeting (yellow book entitled : ” International Karma Kagyu Conference). Large excerpts from these have been used in this document.

In December of 1996 Thaye Dorje presided over the Monlam Chenmo, great aspiration prayers, in Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. For the first time in history a Karmapa had his hair cut in Bodh Gaya – a ceremony that formally initiated his activity in the world. Over 6000 monks and nuns, as well as a large number of lamas from the Himalayan region, attended the event. Today Thaye Dorje resides in Kalimpong, in the eastern Himalayas, only a few hours’ drive away from Rumtek itself. He receives an increasing number of local and overseas disciples and well-wishers.

In September 1997, Topga Rinpoche died of liver cancer. Later, at his cremation in Thimphu (Bhutan), Trinley Thaye Dorje was officially welcomed by the Bhutanese royal family as the 17th Karmapa.

A 79-member delegation comprising activists of the joint action committee led by Situ and Gyaltshab Rinpoches met the Dalai Lama and the kashag (cabinet) of the Tibetan government in-exile at Dharamsala on 29 and 30 January in 1997. The delegation expressed its reservation to an audience promised to Shamar Rinpoche by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama conceded the request and did not grant an audience to Shamar Rinpoche. A letter in this regard was sent to Shamar Rinpoche by the office of the Dalai Lama on 3 February. However, Shamar Rinpoche says he still holds the Dalai Lama in high esteem but in the same breadth adds that the process of the reincarnation of the Karmapa does not need the seal of approval of the Dalai Lama.

In November 1997, Urgyen Trinley, the candidate of Situ Rinpoche as the Karmapa, recognised a four year old boy from Chushul near Lhasa as the reincarnation of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. Situ Rinpoche and his secretary Ngoche Kargyay smuggled the purported reincarnation to Kalimpong in Darjeeling district of India and installed him at the retreat centre of the monastery of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche at Lava near Kalimpong. On the other hand, Trinley Thaye Dorje, the candidate of Shamar Rinpoche as the Karmapa, recognised the son of Beru Khyentse Rinpoche in 1996 as the reincarnation of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. This boy is studying in the monastery of his father.

Situ Rinpoche too searched for the reincarnation of Kalu Rinpoche. The reincarnation is the son of Gyaltshen, who was the secretary of the previous Kalu Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama too recognised this reincarnation. In April 1993, when the Dalai Lama consecrated Kalu Rinpoche’s stupa at Salugara on the outskirts of Siliguri, he performed the hair cutting ceremony for Kalu Rinpoche’s reincarnation and also attended another ceremony in the monastery of Kalu Rinpoche at Sonada. The daughter of Beru Kyentse Rinpoche is the reincarnation of the nun Gelongma Pag-Mo.

The succession war again hotted up in January 2000.

Situpa’s banishment is lifted

The right wing Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance government lifted the ban on the entry of Situ Rinpoche in 1998. Ram Jethmalani, a minister in the Government of India, pleaded his case. Dugo Bhutia, a former MLA of Sikkim, filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court of India challenging the revocation of the ban order. Earlier, a writ petition in this regard in Delhi High Court had been dismissed by 26 August, 1998 with the observations that as the matter concerned the policy of the Government of India in relation to the neighbouring country, it was not appropriate for the high court to entertain the public interest litigation.

The Supreme Court too dismissed the petition and observed that in all questions like this where the Government of India decided not to allow a person to enter this country, it was not appropriate for any court to decide otherwise or to interfere in such a decision.

Basis for Situ Rinpoche’s banishment

N. D. George, Director in the Home Ministry, in a counter affidavit on behalf of the Government of India, admitted that the situation in Sikkim had become fragile and capable of being exploited by anti-national elements as also by the external agencies with possibilities of attempts to divide communities and groups. The situation was extremely delicate and sensitive, involving imminent danger of breach of peace and public order as there were frequent clashes between the two rival groups.

In 1994, Situ Rinpoche went abroad without intimation to the Government of India. Even in the past he had frequently visited foreign countries including Nepal and China without intimation and without seeking permission of the government. Under the existing rules, Tibetan refugees in India are required to obtain a ‘No Objection to Return to India Certificate’ before proceeding to any foreign country. At the same time, complaints were received about Situ’s involvement in a deal of land measuring 534 bighas in Gurgaon in Haryana without permission from the Reserve Bank of India and in violation of the provisions of FERA. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) began investigation into the case. Situ Rinpoche was also reported to be in possession of a Bhutanese diplomatic passport.

After considering his frequent visits to Nepal and Tibet (China) without prior intimation or permission of the Government of India, and his role in the discovery of reincarnation of the Karmapa with suspected active assistance of Chinese authorities coupled with the possession of a Bhutanese diplomatic passport, making him liable to lose his Tibetan refugee status, the Government of India decided to put Situ Rinpoche in the ‘suspect list’. The warning circular 28/94 dated 2 August, 1994 placing him in the ‘prior-reference category’ stated that he should not be allowed visa (entry, transit or tourist) without prior reference to the Government of India.

The Government of India admitted receiving a number of representations and communications for review of the restrictions. The matter was periodically reviewed in interdepartmental meetings at various levels. The matter was finally considered at the level of the home secretary where it was noted that the intelligence agencies had opposed revocation of the warning circular, as it would result in serious law and order situation in Sikkim in case Situ Rinpoche went there.

However, he is still debarred from entering Jammu & Kashmir, northeastern states and Sikkim. A lookout circular has been issued in place of warning circular. The order gave the reasons as (1) CBI inquiry regarding purchase of land, (2) anti India activities.

N. D. George said the reasons were given inadvertently as the orders were issued by a different division of the home ministry. The correct reason was “apprehension of law and order problem”. The two orders were released on 5 August and 31 August, 1998, respectively. They prohibited Situ Rinpoche from leaving India without prior clearance from the CBI. It was also mentioned in the last circular that he should not be allowed to enter Darjeeling district of West Bengal besides the other states mentioned.

Situ Rinpoche returns to India

Situ Rinpoche returned to India on 25 August, 1998. He was received at the Indira Gandhi airport in New Delhi by 4 crowd of his supporters. A reception was held in his honour by the Himalayan Buddhists Cultural Association at the India Habitat Centre next day. The Dalai Lama welcomed him back on 3 September. After eight days, the Dalai Lama gave him a certificate, putting aside all doubts about his anti-Indian activities.

Situ Rinpoche denied his involvement in the land deal. He said that no land had been purchased either by him or any one on his behalf; that no document had been executed either by him or any one on his behalf and, therefore, the question of violation of any law did not arise. However, he admitted that there was a proposal. There is still a proposal to purchase land for constructing a retreat for monks, he said. This retreat would be part of the PaIpung Foundation just as the Sherab Ling Institute of Buddhist Studies forms the part of the same foundation. The foundation is of Indian origin and has nothing to do with the Chinese government at all, he claimed. However, he admitted that he had received a questionnaire from Interpol in this regard.

Pawan Kumar Chamling, Chief Minister of Sikkim

Soon after his return to India, Situ Rinpoche met Pawan Kumar Chamling, Chief Minister of Sikkim, in New Delhi. He reportedly told the chief minister that he came to India when he was barely six year old and since then he had always regarded India as his own country. He added that branding him as anti-India or pro-Chinese was only a design by certain vested interests to tarnish his image among his followers. The Dalai Lama too vouched in September 1998 that Situ Rinpoche was not an instrument of Chinese political intrigue.

Situ Rinpoche requested the chief minister of Sikkim to use his good offices in bringing the 16th Karmapa (reincarnate) to India and thus resolve the vexed issue. He apprised the chief minister that the Dalai Lama had also urged the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao for the same. The chief minister told him that the role of the state government was confined to maintaining law and order, which it was doing in a fair and impartial manner. As for bringing the 16th Karmapa. to India, the chief minister advised that nobody should seek to extract capital out of religion and all political parties in Sikkim should unitedly request the union government to bring the 16th Karmapa to India.

Chamling later requested the prime minister to acknowledge Situ’s candidate as the 16th Karmapa of the Kagyu order. In a letter to the prime minister, Chamling pointed out that the reincarnate of the 16th Karmapa was recognised by the Dalai Lama way back in 1992. He said that immediate steps in this regard would clear doubts in the minds of devotees and followers of the sect within and outside the country, besides putting an end once and for all to the decade old controversy laden with international ramifications. He also requested the government of India to assist in bringing the 16th Karmapa to the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim from Tibet. However, he reiterated that notwithstanding the succession of the Gyalwa Karmapa, the state government had maintained a clear and transparent policy confined to maintaining law and order at the Rumtek monastery in a fair and impartial manner.

The chief minister has also demanded lifting of the ban on the entry of Situ Rinpoche into Sikkim. He said, “by no stretch of imagination can Situ Rinpoche be branded as an ‘agent’ of the Chinese government.” In his three-page letter, the chief minister explained the background of the controversy over the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa.

Open letter from Shamarpa to all Kagyus

October 14, 1999

In my capacity as the Shamarpa, traditionally the second highest Karma Kagyu spiritual leader, I write to explain some of the circumstances surrounding the reincarnation of His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa. Following the centuries-old spiritual practices of the Karma Kagyu school, I recognised Trinley Thaye Dorje as the genuine reincarnation. He took birth in 1983 as the first son of the 3rd Mipham Rinpoche as his father and Dechen Wangmo as his mother who are from Dzakhog in eastern Tibet. After he and his parents escaped from Tibet in March 1994, I formally recognised him as the 17th Karmapa in a welcoming ceremony in New Delhi.

Since the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981 until my recognition of the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje, many lamentable and unnecessary obstacles have arisen in the recognition process. In essence, they have been of a political, not a spiritual nature. I have long advocated the separation of politics and religion in Tibetan culture. The intrusion of politics, on both a human and a national level, can only lead to the corruption of spiritual values and traditions. History has repeatedly proven this to be true.

In my humble opinion, the root cause of the turmoil surrounding the identification of the reincarnation of the late Karmapa ultimately can be traced back to his relentless challenge to the policy of His Holiness Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile to unify all the different religious schools of Tibet. While agreeing with the policies for political and ethnic unification, the late Karmapa, and many other Tibetan religious leaders, however, feared that the religious policy would extinguish the rich, meaningful diversity of Tibetan spiritual life. The late Karmapa’s leadership role in opposing this policy subjected the Dalai Lama to considerable pressure.

As a result, it is understandable that the Tibetan Government in Exile would want to use the recognition of the 17th Karmapa for its political benefit to avoid any possible future challenge from a strong, independent spiritual leader like the 16th Karmapa. Without going into the complicated details behind the competing and fraudulent claims for Urgyen Trinley in Tibet as the reincarnated Karmapa, I regret to inform you that since 1990 Mr. Juchen Thubten, Senior Minister in the Tibetan Government in Exile, together with several Karma Kagyu lamas, especially Situ Rinpoche, conspired with the government of China to identify a reincarnated Karmapa in Tibet. In this way, the new Kamarpa would be under Chinese control and hence pose no possible threat to the Tibetan Government in Exile while at the same time allowing Situ Rinpoche to be in a dominant position in the Karma Kagyu sect outside Tibet. The intention of these actions was to deprive the Buddhist communities in the Himalayas from access to the Gyalwa Karmapa and also to undermine the administration of the late Gyalwa Karmapa in Rumtek, Sikkim. I can understand the Government in Exile’s actions against the administration of the late Gyalwa Karmapa. However, I cannot understand why several Rinpoches from the Kagyu Lineage who supported the late Gyalwa Karmapa while he was alive, betrayed his policies and religious ideals after his death.

I ascribe pure intentions to the Dalai Lama and so cannot believe he was behind Mr. Juchen Thubten’s actions. However, he did publicly consent to the recognition of Urgyen Trinley, all the while realizing that he would be under the control of the Chinese government. I find this an ironic contradiction, since the Dalai Lama opposes the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama in Tibet who like Urgyen Trinley is subject to Chinese authority.

Since the parinirvana of the 16th Karmapa until now, I have avoided trying to provoke a feud with the Dalai Lama, and I went out of my way – now in retrospect, perhaps too far out of my way – to cooperate in the search for the reincarnated Karmpa. Indeed, in May 1992, on Tulku Ugen Rinpoche’s request and out of respect for the Dalai Lama, I gave my initial consent in favor of Urgyen Trinley.

After the Karmapa controversy began in May 1992, I met His Holiness the Dalia Lama several times and requested him not to get involved and to remain neutral. He gave me a favorable response, but the politicians below him were not so accommodating. I hold His Holiness the Dalai Lama in high regard, but not so some of his officials.
In the interest of maintaining harmony within the Karma Kagyu school, not only did I give my initial consent in favor of Urgyen Trinley, but I also abandoned my demands for a forensic test of the handwritten prediction letter that Situ Rinpoche desperately produced in March 1992, claiming that the late 16th Karmapa had written it to convey instructions for identifying his reincarnation. I did so on the condition that Situ Rinpoche would not cause any further trouble. Although he did not fulfill his promise to keep the peace in the Dharma community, I have kept my promise until now.

I harbor no ill will toward Urgyen Trinley and, indeed, offer him support and prayers that his efforts to spread the Dharma will benefit his nation and all sentient beings. Nevertheless, I cannot and will not sacrifice our Karma Kagyu spiritual tradition and values by not appointing and recognizing the true Karma Kagyu spiritual leader. Furthermore, I will not be party to contaminating the pure tradition of the Karma Kagyu by deceiving followers through forgery and misinterpreting our sacred history.

I have recognized Trinley Thaye Dorje as the genuine reincarnation of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa. This is in keeping with the Karma Kagyu tradition and the spiritual authority it has invested in the Shamarpa over many generations. The Shamarpa’s previous roles in recognizing the Karmapa can be corroborated in the Golden Lineage History of Karma Kagyu written by the 8th Tai Situpa Choeki Jungney, copies of which can be found in China, Tibet and other libraries all over the world. Situ Rinpoche’s Palpung Monastery even has the original wood blocks for printing this famous text.

My deepest prayers are to the Triple Gems in order to wipe out the evil attacks during recent years that were aimed at destroying the Karma Kagyu tradition through money, power and malicious methods. I also fervently hope and pray that the Karma Kagyu tradition is restored along with peace, that politics be divorced from religion, and that selflessness replace some lamas’ greed for offerings. Only in such an atmosphere will the genuine teachings of the great Buddha flourish.

My special prayer is to eliminate all contradiction and bitter tension that has occurred between the late Karmapa’s side and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s side. We must work to rebuild a genuine friendship and to unite dharmically for the spread of Buddhism and the betterment of all sentient beings.

I remain yours faithfully in the practice and spread of Dharma.

Shamar Rinpoche

Details given by Khenpo Choedrak Tenphel

As per the claim that that most Tibetans do not accept Thaye Dorje as Karmapa, it should be pointed out that only a small proportion of Tibetans are Kagyupas. When it comes to recognizing a Karmapa, most are therefore neutral and are respectful towards both candidates, wishing to avoid politics and for the controversy to end. This doesn’t include, of course, the more militant Tibetan Youth Congress, whose members support Urgyen Trinley temporally as Karmapa in order to support His Holiness the Dalai Lama’a policy. Your claim that Karmapa Thaye Dorje is not respected by Tibetans is simply not true. For instance, when he entered the monkhood in Bodh Gaya in 1996, over 12 000 Tibetans came to pay him respect, as the widely circulated video of the event can confirm. In fact, many thousands of Buddhists in Nepal and Bhutan follow him. This is not to say that Tibetans who openly support Karmapa Thaye Dorje have it easy. In fact, many Tibetan refugees have reported that Situ Rinpoche’s group routinely stone the homes of people who openly display Thaye Dorje’s photograph. In response to this, Shamar Rinpoche advises people not to keep these photographs, as devotion is in the heart anyways. It must also be pointed out that what is important is to have a genuineKarmapa, something which is not established by counting the number of people who come to him.

These words come from an interview with Khenpo Choedrak Tenphel

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