One of the most contested issues within Tibetan Buddhism is that of the recognition of the 17th Karmapa, the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyus sect. This has been a central dividing factor within the Karma Kagyus, which has since split into two divisions – each following one of the two Karmapas.
First, a bit of history: traditionally, it is widely acknowledged that the incarnations of the Karmapas can be recognized by any of the four regents of the Karma Kagyus. For hundreds of years, it has been the Shamarpa who has recognized the Karmapa most often. This tradition has been followed for centuries within the Karma Kagyu school of Buddhism, undisturbed by any other spiritual authority or group. The 17th Karmapa incarnation named Trinley Thaye Dorje was recognized in this way, by Shamar Rinpoche (also known as the Shamarpa) in 1994.
However, another regent within the Karma Kagyu lineage, Tai Situ Rinpoche (also known as Tai Situpa) had recognized another boy as the ‘official’ 17th Karmapa in 1992: Urgyen Trinley Dorje. Tai Situpa then sought ‘acknowledgement’ and ‘approval’ from the Dalai Lama for this recognition, which the Dalai Lama granted. Although the Dalai Lama has no real jurisdiction over the Karma Kagyu school, he involved himself in the affairs of their lineage and tulkus. By doing so, he overrode a long-established system of recognitions by the four regents within the Karma Kagyu lineage. The Dalai Lama actually has no right to do this, as he is not even of the Kagyu sect nor holds any official position of authority within this school. Traditionally, it has been the Shamarpa (or, in his absence, one of the other regents) who has recognized and announced the incarnations. This recognition by Tai Situpa, compounded by the acknowledgement from the Dalai Lama, was completely contrary to tradition.
This was noted by the Shamarpa himself, when he wrote in a letter to famous author and Dalai Lama supporter, Robert Thurman, that “No Shamarpa has had to ask for approval or provide proof to the Dalai Lamas or to the Tibetan government.” (Links to background information about both Karmapas and the writings about the Karmapa controversy can be found below).
A feud broke out within the Karma Kagyu lineage, particularly between the two regents Shamarpa Rinpoche and Tai Situ Rinpoche, which has continued to this day. The Karma Kagyu split into two factions and Rumtek Monastery, the traditional seat of the Karmapas, became a hotly contested space. Some media reports claim that the Shamarpa had tried to oust the Dalai-Lama-backed Tai Situpa and his people from Rumtek; other reports claim that it was the other way around, that Tai Situpa had attacked the Shamarpa and his people while they were in Rumtek. Whoever it was however, it is certain that the monastery definitely came under physical attack by both lay practitioners and even monks. (Video also available on our server here)
Eventually, this feuding culminated in the Indian authorities banning Tai Situpa from entering India on the counts of anti-India activities. It has been speculated that the Shamarpa was behind this, having many close connections with the Indian police. Even when he was allowed back in, there are restrictions as where he was allowed to travel within India. There continues to be two Karmapas today, with two distinctly different groups of followers.
The Chosen Ones
Following his ‘recognition’ and up until this day, the Dalai Lama continues to promote Karmapa Urgyen Trinley, invites him to official events, pujas and rituals, and speaks about him publicly. He never extends the same acknowledgment, invitations or promotion to Karmapa Thaye Dorje. As the Dalai Lama and the CTA never meet or associate publicly with Thaye Dorje, they are effectively stating that they do not respect nor acknowledge the recognition made by the Shamarpa and the Karma Kagyu school. This is a clear and silent message to the Shamarpa and the Karma Kagyu tradition that they must come under the rule, law and edicts of the Dalai Lama and his secular government. It is saying that they must abide by the Dalai Lama’s decision, even if there is no tradition to support this in the history of the Karma Kagyu school and practices.
Above all, it undermines the basic tenet of freedom of religion, which should be granted equally to all citizens. The explicit support of one Karmapa and the clear exclusion of another is evidence enough that the religious choices of individuals are not equally respected – one automatically ‘falls out of favor’ with the Dalai Lama and his people if they don’t choose to follow the ‘right’ Karmapa.
It can thus be also inferred that followers of Karmapa Thaye Dorje have broken their samaya (spiritual relationship) with the Dalai Lama. Many Karma Kagyu followers have received the Kalachakra tantric initiation (and the corresponding vows) from the Dalai Lama, and would therefore consider him one of their teachers. However, by following Karmapa Thaye Dorje, who has NOT been recognized by the Dalai Lama, are they not going against his instructions and directives? And by doing so, are they not therefore breaking their samaya with him? How can they then continue to attend and receive teachings from the Dalai Lama when they have broken the fundamental basis of their student-teacher relationship with him?
The Shunned Ones
There is another similar situation occurring now in the Tibetan Buddhist world: The Dalai Lama no longer recognizes the practice of the Protector Deity Dorje Shugden as a valid practice. He has issued a ban against this Protector, stating that anyone who continues to worship Dorje Shugden is going against his instruction and therefore breaking samaya with him. The Dalai Lama and his government in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) have claimed that to pray to Dorje Shugden is to go against the Dalai Lama and would thus break samaya with the Dalai Lama. This infers that the broken samaya could lead to shortening the Dalai Lama’s life.
Dorje Shugden practitioners are not permitted to attend any event, rituals or teachings by the Dalai Lama; they are not allowed to meet with nor speak to the Dalai Lama. All Tibetans are discouraged from associating with Dorje Shugden practitioners in any way. Dorje Shugden devotees are denied basic welfare, civil rights and protection from the government. Because of this ban, monks have been expelled from their monasteries because they did not wish to give up the practice. Monasteries have split into two factions because of the pressures being put on the monks to give up what has been a lifelong religious practice for most of them. Both the Dalai Lama and the CTA even have information on their official websites denouncing the practice of Dorje Shugden and actively, openly discouraging anyone from associating with this practice. See clear evidence of this material on the Dalai Lama’s website and the CTA’s website.
Our question is this: it would seem that both Dorje Shugden practitioners and followers of Thaye Dorje are not following the directives of the Dalai Lama. In both cases, these practitioners have broken their samaya with the Dalai Lama and therefore, karmically pose a potential threat to the Dalai Lama’s life and their personal spiritual development. So why is it that there are such severe repercussions for Dorje Shugden practitioners but hardly anything is said about the Karma Kagyu followers of Thaye Dorje? Why are Dorje Shugden practitioners banned from attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings or associating with other Tibetans but Karmapa Thaye Dorje’s followers are not? It appears that there are different standards for the two groups when they have both equally broken samaya – why is this so? Why does the CTA discriminate against Dorje Shugden practitioners but not against the ‘other’ Karmapa group?
It must also be noted that arising out of this Karmapa controversy was the Shamarpa’s very outspoken comments to the Dalai Lama and his supporters, such as renowned Buddhist writer Robert Thurman. In a series of letters and written statements, the Shamarpa made very overt comments about the inappropriate interferences by the Dalai Lama and his government in internal Karma Kagyu affairs. He directly questioned the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama, pointed out the incorrectness and hypocrisy of the Dalai Lama’s actions in this affair and made clear his disapproval of their intrusion. Other supporters of Trinley Thaye Dorje also wrote a very firm and strongly-worded petition letter to the Dalai Lama expressing their stand in the matter.
So on the one hand, Dorje Shugden practitioners are accused of betraying the Dalai Lama and being traitors to the cause for Tibet’s freedom – even though most of them engage in their spiritual practice quietly, peacefully and without becoming involved in any political affairs of the state. On the other, the Shamarpa and his followers are speaking out so openly and aggressively against the Dalai Lama’s actions and making it very clear that they do not support the Dalai Lama’s decisions. However, while Shugden devotees are continuously harassed for their practice, denied their basic civil rights and excluded from the community, both the Dalai Lama and the CTA have not responded in any way to counter the Shamarpa’s verbal and written attacks, nor imposed any repercussions against their outspoken reactions.
Further, we must remember the physical attacks on Rumtek Monastery (the Karmapa’s official seat) and the subsequent unrest and instability it caused in the area. To this day there are conflicting reports as to whether it was the Shamarpa who incited the attacks, or Tai Situpa which in itself reflects the highly volatile state of affairs caused by this issue. However, despite the obvious violence, the Dalai Lama and the CTA remained silent about the attacks.
In contrast, the Tibetan government and laypeople repeatedly accuse Dorje Shugden practitioners of violence, even maintaining claims that Shugden worshippers were responsible for murders in the late 1990s. These claims were never really substantiated or proven beyond doubt, but the stigma that Dorje Shugden people are violent and harmful are consistently perpetuated. Again, why are there different reactions to what is essentially the same issue of violence and supposed opposition?
We could maybe assume that the Dalai Lama has refrained from saying anything about the conflicts or violence that arose out of the Karmapa controversy because to do so would be seen as sectarian. The Dalai Lama himself is schooled in the Gelugpa lineage and would therefore not have any right to critique or comment on the practices of the Kagyus or any other school. But if this was really the case, then in the first place the Dalai Lama should not have stepped foot at all into Kagyu affairs by ‘approving’ one Karmapa over the other. He should have stayed out of what is traditionally an issue handled only by the lamas of the Karma Kagyu sect.
We might also say that it is just a simple case of bias for one Karmapa and prejudice against another (whatever the reasons may be). Then the same must necessarily be said of the Dorje Shugden issue – the Dalai Lama and his government must therefore assume responsibility for being biased and prejudiced against Dorje Shugden practitioners and be open to dialogue about it. They must be able to explain, first and foremost, why any government which claims to be democratic, would have any such bias against any of their own people.
Why the Difference?
This division among the Karma Kagyus has been a significant and largely troubled part of the contemporary Tibetan Buddhist history for more than 15 years. It has caused great rifts throughout the Tibetan Buddhist community worldwide and the Karma Kagyu sect continues to function as two instead of as a unified whole. For an issue as significant as this, the Dalai Lama’s government remains unusually quiet, choosing not to act or comment against the group that is supposedly ‘against’ the Dalai Lama’s chosen Karmapa. However, they apparently have a free hand to create tremendous conflict between Dorje Shugden practitioners and the rest of the Tibetan community, and very obviously hurt this sector of their exiled community.
We ask again – why is there such a difference in the way people of the same community are treated, based purely on their religious choices? Why does the CTA practice such explicit discrimination and prejudice against one group, but not another?
For the record, we do not have any bias for or against either of the Karmapas; nor do we wish to take sides or comment on the internal affairs of the Karma Kagyus. However, we wish to highlight the very apparent inconsistencies in policy as practiced by the Dalai Lama and the CTA. We urge the Dalai Lama and the CTA to urgently re-examine their policies and we hope that they will see and acknowledge the obvious differences in the way they treat their own people.
From there, we hope they will change their policies to truly embrace all the people of their community. Lift the ban on Dorje Shugden practitioners so the CTA can be proud that they were finally able to do something wonderfully constructive for Tibetans – by granting all Tibetans the democratic right to religious freedom.
To join the discussion:
For further reading material on the Karmapa issue and references made within this article, please refer to the following links:
Background on the two Karmapas:
Media Coverage of the Karmapa Controversy:
Rival Tibetan Lamas Compete for Recognition (Agence France-Presse)
Struggle for Tibet’s Soul (AsiaWeek)
Trouble in the Pure Lands: The Karmapa Controversy (Buddhism Today)
Rumtek Monastery Under Attack (Video also available on our server here)
Statements from Shamar Rinpoche & followers:
The Shamarpa’s statement
Letter to H.H. the Dalai Lama by Shamar Rinpoche
Letter to Robert A.F. Thurman by Shamar Rinpoche
Letter to the Dalai Lama from followers of Karmapa Thaye Dorje
Letter from Shamar Rinpoche to Samdhong Rinpoche, the Prime Minister of the Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama never opposed my recognition of Karmapa: Shamarpa Rinpoche
Supporting information about Tai Situ being banned from India:
Evidence of the CTA and the Dalai Lama’s advice against Dorje Shugden on their official websites: