The Karmapa controversy and the Dalai Lama’s ‘return’
The Karmapa has been in the news since 1992.
He got again prominent coverage when a meeting scheduled to discuss the future of the Dalai Lama’s institution was ‘indefinitely’ postponed by the organizers, the Dharamsala-based Department of Religion and Culture.
The reason given for the ‘indefinite’ postponement of the 13th Religious Conference of the Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Tradition’ to be held from November 29 to December 1, was the sudden demise of the head of the Nyingma school, Kathok Getse Rinpoche, who was to participate in the religious conference.
Why ‘indefinitely’ asked many observers?
Sonam Norbu Dagpo, the spokesperson of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, affirmed that the Rinpoche’s death was the only reason: “Therefore any other reason being cited by independent sources are not true and stem from mere speculation.”
This did not stop the press to ‘speculate’; many believed that the absence of the Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyud (a sub-sect of Kagyud school of Tibetan Buddhism) was the real reason, as he was unable to get an Indian visa.
The Historical Controversy
The Karmapa is not new to controversy.
In 1992, the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim witnessed ugly scenes of violence about who was the ‘true’ reincarnation of Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa, a charismatic Tibetan Lama who had taken refuge in Sikkim after the 1959 Tibet uprising.
Rangjung Rigpe was revered by all and considered as the head of all of Kagyuds, which is not the case of the present incarnation.
The problem started when the four Regents, appointed to find the ‘reborn’ 17th Karmapa, began fighting among themselves. It is true that ‘succession’ entailed not just spiritual, but also economic and political factors, including the fate of hundreds of wealthy Dharma centers abroad as well as China’s role in the process.
To cut a long (and murky) story short, after one of the regents died in mysterious car accident, one boy Urgyen Trinley Dorje, born in Tibet, was recognized by two of the regents, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches, while the fourth regent, Shamar Rinpoche, the nephew of the previous Karmapa, opposed their choice and ultimately selected his own ‘reincarnation’, Thaye Trinley Dorje who shuttles between Delhi and his centers abroad.
Eventually, Urgyen Trinley was enthroned in Tsurphu, the main Karma-Kagyud monastery in Tibet by Ren Wuzhi, Head of the Religious Affairs Bureau of China’s State Council and the two regents supporting him.
For eight years, the boy lived in Tsurphu under Chinese surveillance; but in December 1999, in a Hollywood-type escape, he left Tibet and reached Dharamsala in early January 2000. His life became complicated when the Indian security agencies found serious discrepancies in the reports of the young Lama’s flight.
During the following years, Urgyen continued to live in Gyuto monastery, not far from Dharamsala, under the Dalai Lama’s protection.
The Karmapa’s sudden departure for the US in May 2017 (apparently for medical treatment) and his acquiring a new passport in March 2018, without prior information to Delhi, did not endear him to the Indian authorities.
Urgyen often bitterly complained against the government, saying that he could not move without Delhi’s permission, but acquiring a passport from the Commonwealth of Dominica, a tiny island in the Antilles specialized in selling passports and ‘managing’ finances, did not help his case (the cost of the passport is said to be minimum one lakh US dollars!)
A few such places exist, remember billionaire jeweler Mehul Choksi, absconding from India, who bought a new citizenship in Antigua in November 2017. The Times of India said: “Rich Chinese and Russians have been among the top buyers of foreign citizenship …Choksi’s move has created awareness about these options. Lawyers and tax advisors in India recommend rich clients to global companies that advise on where and how to settle.” The connotation did not go in favour of Urgyen Thinley.
Obviously, the Karmapa, who used to travel on an IC (Identification Certificate) issued by the Government of India, has poor advisors. After all the Dalai Lama has been travelling all over the world since 1967 (when he visited Japan and Thailand) with a similar IC and has rarely faced any serious problem.
For someone sometimes projected (by the sensation press) as a possible successor for the Dalai Lama, the passport issue has compounded the problem. Does Urgyen have the moral capacity to lead all the Tibetans?
The Dharamsala’s religious Conference could have decided on this issue.
The Tibetan system of governance
Possibly a more serious issue is the Tibetan system of governance ‘by reincarnation’; in today’s modern world, it is apparent that it is a poor system as it leaves a gap of 20 years or so, without ‘ruler’ or ‘head lama’.
Historically, the instability of the system has often been demonstrated; it was used by incompetent stewards, regents or by the Chinese Ambans (representative of the Manchu emperor) to influence Tibetan politics. Today, the Chinese replaces the Ambans, controlling Tibetan affairs more formidably.
During the 19th century, it was murmured in Lhasa that the Ambans had found the weakness in the system and four Dalai Lamas (from the 9th to the 12th) died before they reached the age of twenty.
Two Panchen Lamas
In the Dalai Lama’s own Yellow School, the situation is rather confused; traditionally in Tibet, the Panchen Lama was the second most prominent religious figure. Following the passing away of the 10th Panchen Lama in January 1989, the Dalai Lama formally proclaimed a six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as his reincarnation on May 14, 1995.
Three days later, the Chinese government arrested him; he has never been seen again. Another boy, Gyalsten Norbu, sponsored by the Communist regime, presently sits on the throne in Shigatse in Tibet (in fact he is mostly in Beijing).
Two Karmapas, two Panchen Lamas! No one wants two Dalai Lamas in the future.
What are the alternatives?
Though it is impossible to know for sure if the Karmapa’s absence was one of the reasons for ‘indefinitely’ postponing the Dharamsala meet, it is a great pity that the conference has been cancelled. There is certainly an urgency to define a more ‘scientific’ procedure for the succession for the next Dalai Lama, at a time when, under the aegis of Communist Party, Beijing is working hard to put in place rules to find their own 15th Dalai Lama.
It was hoped that the November Meet would have discussed other ways of succession, including an emanation in an already-born boy or adolescent.
The Dalai Lama always urges his followers to think rationally.
Reason tells us that it makes no sense for the Dalai Lama to not reincarnate, his presence is needed too much by the people of Tibet for him to dispense himself from ‘returning’. Further, his ‘non-reincarnation’ would be a boon for China who is bound to discover its own Dalai Lama.
An emanation would have the advantage that the chosen person could be groomed and ‘initiated’ over several years by the present Dalai Lama himself; something like the Senior and Junior Shankaracharyas.
Though the Dalai Lama remains a rock of serenity and stability in the chaotic world of Tibetan Buddhism, the future is rather hazy.
Whether the Dalai Lama decides to take a new body or ’emanate’ during his own life time, the institution of the Dalai Lama is a matter of concern for India and the people of India are feeling concerned.
It is also vital for the future of Tibetan Buddhism which has witnessed many sectarian disputes in the past.
This article The Karmapa controversy and the Dalai Lama’s ‘return’ appeared in Strategic New International.