By Barbara O'BrienJuly 19, 2010
Here's some news that may, or may not, be significant -- According to Voice of Sikkim, Kagyu Buddhist monks in Sikkim are joining forces to call for the enthronement of His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, at Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre , the official home-monastery-in-exile of Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhism. And if that doesn't interest you, keep reading. As they say, it gets juicy.
Monks of the three largest Kagyu monasteries in Sikkim -- Phodong, Ralong and Rumtek -- have received the support of some major Nyingma monasteries in Sikkim, plus some other organizations, to bring His Holiness to Rumtek. Further, the majority party of the Sikkim state legislature apparently had the return of the Karmapa to Rumtek in its most recent campaign platform.
I say "return" of the Karmapa, because the 16th Karmapa lived there for many years. The current Karmapa has never been there, however, and I don't believe the other current Karmapa has been there, either. And yes, there is a controversy over which is the real Karmapa, which is why this story may be significant.
Some background -- Kagyu is one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and Karma Kagyu is a sub-school of Kagyu. The Karmapa has been the head of Karma Kagyu since the 12th century and is also the third highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism.
After His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, was exiled from Tibet in 1959, he chose Rumtek monastery in Sikkim as his new home. The original Rumtek was built in the 16th century by the 9th Karmapa. The old Rumtek monastery for a time had been the main monastery of Karma Kagyu, but by the 20th century it had become a ruin. His Holiness believed the location was auspicious, however, so he had a new monastery built very near where the old one had been. The new facility was officially opened and blessed as the new seat of the office of Karmapa in 1966.
Also, at some time after 1959 the Tibetan government in exile designated His Holiness the Karmapa as the head of the entire Kagyu school, not just Karma Kagyu.
Several years passed after the 16th Karmapa's death in 1981 before a successor was identified. A letter found by a high lama named Tai Situ Rinpoche led to the discovery of a seven-year-old boy who would be enthroned in Tibet in 1992 as Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa. This 17th Karmapa fled Tibet in 1999 and has been living in Dharamsala, India, ever since.
But not so fast -- what about the other Karmapa? In 1988 the Shamar Rinpoche, another high lama, identified another Tibetan boy as the 17h Karmapa. This was significant, because the Shamar Rinpoche traditionally has the job of identifying Karmapas. In 1994 this boy and his family escaped from Tibet, and the Shamar Rinpoche had the boy enthroned as His Holiness Trinley Thaye Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi, India.
After this, it gets confusing. Both Karmapas have a large number of devoted supporters. (In fact, whenever I write something about the Karmapa[s], I get emails from supporters of both saying that if I could only be in His Holiness's radiant presence I would know right away that their guy is the Real Deal. Projection, m'loves, projection.) But while Trinley Thay's followers are a significant minority of the Kagyu school, Ogyen Trinley's followers are a solid majority. Plus, Ogyen Trinley has the support of, and is being mentored by, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Which takes us back to Rumtek. Much of the squabbling within Kagyu has centered on Rumtek and on the relics and sacred items of the Kagyu school that are housed there. I believe both factions have accused the other of fronting a phony Karmapa just to get control of Rumtek. The issue was taken to Indian courts. One ruling was claimed by Trinley Thay's followers to be in their favor, but Ogyen Trinley's followers said it wasn't. Beyond that it's very difficult to know what's what, because both sides tell entirely different stories.
Meanwhile, the government of India won't allow either Karmapa to go to Rumtek, even for a visit, because as far as the government is concerned the matter is not settled. And complicating that is the fact that China, which has a lot of influence over India, wants to keep a lid on Ogyen Trinley's growing popularity.
That's because Ogyen Trinley's escape from Tibet was a huge embarrassment for China. Also, China wants its puppet Panchen Lama to become the living face of Tibetan Buddhism once His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is gone. To that I say, fat chance. But China was no doubt behind India's refusal to allow Ogyen Trinley to go to Europe this summer. Beijing wants him bottled up in Dharamsala.
And there is no doubt China would throw a five-alarm fit if Ogyen Trinley were enthroned in Rumtek, which is why it won't happen anytime soon. However, if the news from Sikkim is correct, it seems Trinley They would not be accepted in Rumtek as the legitimate Karmapa. So there is no resolution in sight, but if I had to guess I would say Ogyen Trinley will live in Rumtek some day. He's still very young, and the government of China will change eventually. Everything always does.