The Karmapa Affair

The Sixteenth Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu Tradition, was one of the most famous and highly-revered spiritual masters within the Tibetan community in India, and gradually his reputa- tion also spread throughout the West. He was regarded as one of the greatest spiritual masters of the twentieth century. He had a strong following throughout the Himalayan region including India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, and a growing discipleship in the West. The Thirteen Settlements had wished to make the Karmapa their spiritual head. The Dalai Lama’s government therefore tried directly and indirectly to eclipse the popularity and fame of the Karmapa. It is well known that the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa were in open conflict in the last years of the Karmapa’s life.

In an interview the Dalai Lama has talked of his relationship with the Sixteenth Karmapa:

‘ “On a personal level, still old friends; no problem. But as to the Tibetan community and the politics, a little bit of doubt, a little distance …” The Karmapa, he went on, had refused to contribute to the booklet for independence. “And later, I heard that in talking to some of his centres in Europe and America he said the Tibetan freedom struggle is politics, and that as spiritual practitioners they should not be involved.”

‘ “… So Karmapa Rinpoche, I think perhaps he misled people a little bit, and that made me a little sad …” ’283

The Karmapa was here actually exposing the truth about the Dalai Lama’s use of ‘Lama Policy’, so in light of the Dalai Lama’s views on the union of religion and politics, and his identification of the Tibetan state under his control with the continued development of Buddhism, it is unlikely that the Dalai Lama’s reaction was merely one of sadness.

After the Sixteenth Karmapa passed away, the Dalai Lama took the unprecedented step of using his own power to force the selection of the Karmapa’s reincarnation. This was entirely unwarranted because historically the selection has always been an internal matter solely under the jurisdiction of the Kagyu spiritual tradition itself. There were two candidates: one born in Chinese-occupied Tibet, the candidate officially recognised by the Chinese authorities; and the other born in India and recognised by the great Kagyu spiritual master Shamar Rinpoche. Shamar Rinpoche’s lineage has been closely connected with the Karmapa lineage since the 13th century, and he has been considered second only to the Karmapa himself within the Kagyu tradition. The Dalai Lama sided with the Chinese and ‘officially’ recognised their candidate, a decision that caused chaos within the Kagyu tradition, producing a deep schism between those who follow the Dalai Lama and those who follow Shamar Rinpoche. This schism has divided this spiritual tradition against itself, and at times has led to violence.

As an article in the Indian Sunday magazine commented:

‘The Dalai Lamas have never held any right over the confirmation, let alone recognition, of a Karmapa at any time throughout history. In fact, the Karmapa line precedes that of the Dalai Lamas by over three hundred years and their lineages are and always have been entirely separate.

‘The Dalai Lama does not have historic or religious authority to approve Karmapa reincarnations, or head lamas for any school of Tibetan Buddhism besides his own Gelugpa lineage. This point may be confusing to non-Tibetans because, as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Dalai Lama has a claim on the political loyalty of many Tibetans. Yet, his political role does not give the Dalai Lama spiritual authority to validate the head lamas of Buddhist schools outside his own. The four Buddhist schools of Tibet have always had separate administrations and have chosen their own head lamas, much as Protestants and Catholics choose their own leaders. So, just as the Pope has no role in choosing the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, so the Dalai Lama is not authorized to recognize the Karmapa, who is the leader of the Karma Kagyu school. Only the administration of the late 16th Karmapa is authorized to validate its own chief lama’s reincarnation.’284

In a letter to the Dalai Lama in February 1997, Shamar Rinpoche stated clearly that the Dalai Lama has no authority in confirming a Karmapa reincarnation and no business throwing his ‘weight’ at the Kagyu lineage:

‘This amounts to a medieval dictatorial command and I understand that this is the approach that you desire. But it is completely unacceptable to me … Therefore, my final request to the Private Office of the Dalai Lama is that [it] does not involve His Holiness’s name in this problematic issue … with respect to our lineage it is up to us, who are part of that lineage, to achieve its aims … you ought to be cautious in your undertakings!’285

As a consequence of his outspoken criticism of the Dalai Lama on this issue, the Tibetan government has done everything possible to turn this lama into a pariah within Tibetan society.

As the Mongoose-Canine Letter addressed to the Dalai Lama says:

‘… when in the 1960’s you tried to get rid of the influence of one great Lama’s power, such as Dujom Rinpoche and Karmapa, the side-effect was felt by many Tibetan Lamas, and you caused them to unite in opposition. You could not leave it lightly and you had to do something that caused a split within Tibetan society … Your ministers will have told you that a Karmapa established in the Himalayas will affect the name and power of the Dalai Lama as before since he is very popular in the Himalayas. If the Tibetan exile government of Dalai Lama is really for the independence of Tibet, for the democracy of Tibet, … how can a private organisation like that of the Karmapa, affect your government?

‘… When your Holiness Dalai Lama gave support for this (backed the Chinese candidate) how badly will this harm Tibet’s future? You think that if within your life you cannot be the leader of the Tibetans in Tibet, at least you must keep your position as leader of Tibet in India by using Dharma and politics. For that you calculate that it does not matter what happens for the future of Tibet after your life, as long as you can keep your power now. It is really sad.’ (see Appendix 7)

In an interview in 1994, Jigme Rinpoche, a leading Kagyu lama, made the following comments on the Karmapa situation:

‘… in my opinion a mistake was made right at the beginning, there were miscalculations, control was lost and it was necessary to go that way … The mistakes were not just made now but centuries ago, and led to the loss of the country. Many people in the West think that everybody in Tibet was wise, and they wonder why Tibetans lost Tibet. But when one looks objectively one finds that mistakes like those led to the loss of Tibet and will lead to the loss of the freedom of Tibet in the future….

‘If this continues, Tibet has only [a] few years left … The 16th Karmapa said something like that to Gendun Rinpoche. He said, “You should go to Europe and establish the Dharma.” Gendun Rinpoche asked Karmapa what will happen in Tibet and Asia, and Karmapa said, “Only the outer form of Dharma will continue to exist there, and it will be very difficult in the future to maintain its essence.” ’286

When other Tibetans achieve fame or influence the Dalai Lama de- stroys their reputations, their security and even sometimes their lives, acting with political motivations of jealousy and clinging to power. This is what he did to the Panchen Lama, to Dudjom Rinpoche, to Gungtang Tsultrim, even to his own Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche, and his Spiritual Guide Je Phabongkha Rinpoche. This is what he did to the Karmapa and what he is trying to do to the few holy spiritual masters who are left within the Gelugpa Tradition today.