By: Ashok Rao
Over the course of recent years His Holiness the 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje has traveled through South East Asia on extensive teaching tours, visiting Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines on a number of occasions. Despite not having been recognized by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama nor the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) as the legitimate reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, his activities in this region clearly show that Buddhist practitioners accept him as the unmistaken and rightful heir to the position of Karmapa.
The Karmapa Controversy
Following the passing of the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, a great master who told practitioners they would need to rely on Dorje Shugden in the future, the search for his reincarnation caused a split within the tradition due to the machinations of the CTA in an attempt to exert control over the Karma Kagyu lineage. Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the Four Regents of the Karma Kagyu, approached the Dalai Lama and the CTA to endorse his candidate of Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje. The CTA found this too good of an opportunity to let pass, and so promptly recognized and endorsed this candidate. In endorsing a candidate who would subsequently be beholden to them in thanks for his recognition, this was clearly an attempt on their part to gain control of the Karma Kagyu lineage, which has historically been at odds with the Tibetan leadership since the time of the Great 5th Dalai Lama. As a matter concerning the Karma Kagyu, rather than the Gelug lineage of which the CTA is largely composed of, both the Dalai Lama and the CTA had no spiritual authority to endorse such a recognition.
Traditionally, Tai Situ Rinpoche is not the primary Regent responsible for the recognition or enthronement of the Karmapas. Rather, the Regent with the authority to do so has been Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, who in fact recognized and enthroned Trinley Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa. When the issue of two Karmapas arose, instead of stepping in to mediate between both sides of the divide, the CTA clearly endorsed Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje, thereby exacerbating the situation within the Karma Kagyu tradition. Despite being shunned by the CTA, Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje persevered in his studies and now teaches thousands all over the world, spreading the holy Karma Kagyu lineage. His wildly popular teaching tours across South East Asia are testament to the fact that Buddhist practitioners there are not fazed by the CTA’s decision to endorse the other Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje.
The Philippines 2012
It was during this visit to Taiwan in 2016 that the Dalai Lama and the CTA’s supporters tried to block Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje’s teaching schedule. This raised a number of questions in the minds of practitioners about why this was happening. Subsequently, Lodreu Rabsel Rinpoche, who served as the General Secretary to the Karmapa in the past, composed an open letter to the Dalai Lama and the CTA, addressing the various points of harassment, intimidation and discrimination faced by those who support the Dharma works of Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje.
Despite the Dalai Lama and the CTA’s continued support and endorsement of Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje, it is quite clear that Karma Kagyu practitioners across the South East Asian region choose Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje as the legitimate Karmapa. Buddhist practitioners in South East Asia do not welcome the CTA’s interference in the matter of recognizing Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje, evident by the support and reverence paid to Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje.
Neither does this interference have significant impact in South East Asia, where the Karmapa Thaye Dorje is wildly popular, and where the majority of countries have little or no ties at all with the CTA in Dharamsala. This puts the Karmapa’s popularity squarely out of the reach of the CTA; the South East Asia governments cannot be swayed or manipulated by the goodwill that the Dalai Lama has globally, which the Tibetan leadership often uses to guilt people into doing what they (the leadership) want. In fact, South East Asia has strong trading and economic links with China, a government which the CTA maligns. Even if such countries did have links with the CTA, they would not risk the ire of China, given its position of economic partner.
In South East Asia, practitioners focus on their religious journey rather than embroil themselves with Tibetan politics. Therefore the CTA’s machinations to control the Karma Kagyu tradition have been countered with a strong resistance against the political involvement in the religious lives of practitioners the world over, just as they have been countered by the continued and vocal adherence to the practice of Dorje Shugden by those within their own Gelug tradition.