Fall 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 3

Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Taking Stock

Preacher Joe

Cult Fighting in Massachusetts

The Mexican Election: Bringing the Church Back In

Rome, Relativism, and Reaction

Waco Redux: Trial and Error

Tibet II: Monastic Spinmeister

The Never Ending Story

Tibet I: Lama on the Lam
by Ellen Herson Wittmann

On the night of December 28, 1999, the 14-year-old head of Tibet’s 800-year-old Kagyu Buddhist monastic order, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, eluded his Chinese keepers at Tsurphu monastery, 30 miles from Lhasa. He rode, walked, and flew over the Himalayas in eight days, landing on the Dalai Lama’s doorstep in Dharamsala, India, on January 5. Since then, the sturdy and handsome lad has impressed his admirers as more than just the energetic and daring leader of his own religious lineage. As Isabel Hilton put it in the March 12 New York Times Magazine, "[W]ithin days of his arrival in northern India he would be regarded by many as a possible future leader of the 100,000 exiled Tibetans, the potential temporal successor to the exiled ruler of Tibet, the Dalai Lama."

Who is Ugyen Trinley and how did he reach so exalted a position? The son of nomadic yak herders in eastern Tibet, the 17th Karmapa was identified by the traditional means of a prediction letter purportedly written by the 16th Karmapa before his death in 1981, but not produced until 11 years later by one of the 16th Karmapa’s four regents, Tai Situ. Subsequently, another regent (and a nephew of the 16th Karmapa), Shamar Rinpoche, identified and enthroned a rival candidate, a young nephew of the King of Bhutan last reported to be residing in a monastery in France.

Despite doubts within the Kagyu order about the prediction letter’s authenticity, Ugyen Trinley has been recognized by both the Dalai Lama and Chinese officials—the only Tibetan reincarnate lama, or tulku, to have achieved such accord. Given the ongoing tug of war between China and the Dalai Lama regarding the naming of Tibetan tulkus, this mutual recognition gives Ugyen Trinley a unique opportunity to stake his claim as successor to the 16th Karmapa. As such, the 17th Karmapa inherits an estimated $1.2 billion in assets and five million followers worldwide.

At the same time—and unnoticed by the otherwise attentive international news media—the dispute over the succession has brought to the fore fundamental questions about the future of the tulku tradition itself.

From its close vantage point, India, the birthplace of Buddhism, regards the succession dispute as ugly, Tibetans as manipulative, and China as openly dangerous. Indian press reports have reflected distaste, distrust, and palpable anxiety over the appearance of another high-profile Tibetan lama seeking political asylum. One Kagyu Web Site ( that works meticulously to sort out news coverage of the Karmapa situation claims that certain Indian journalists and newspapers are inflaming public opinion against the 17th Karmapa by promoting "conspiracy theories" regarding the Karmapa’s escape.

As The Statesman, a leading English language daily published in New Delhi and Calcutta by the Financial Times, put it last January, "It is difficult to believe that the Karmapa’s entourage, during its 11-day long trek to India, managed to dodge the heavy Chinese security presence in Tibet… Delhi does not wish to interfere in sacerdotal traditions. Since the matter has assumed high political and diplomatic importance it has to act cautiously." So far, India has avoided granting the Karmapa either refugee status or political asylum, and while there appears to be no intention to return him to Tibet, requests that he be allowed to relocate to the seat of his predecessor, Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, have also been denied.

To be fair to the Chinese regime, which is fair to no one, the prospect of a junior Dalai Lama settling either in Sikkim (whose annexation by India in 1975 has not been recognized by China) or at the Woodstock monastery in New York is highly disruptive to Beijing’s goal of exercising complete "sovereignty" over Tibet. While China has repeatedly denied that the 17th Karmapa had any intention to defect, claiming that he was actually on a mission to retrieve sacred implements from Rumtek, it has simultaneously been tightening its grip on Buddhists throughout Tibet. Any hopes of control ling the Dalai Lama’s succession—and thus his increasingly militant followers—are lost if the only candidate, having been born in Tibet and previously acknowledged by the Chinese as a "Living Buddha," resides at too far a stretch for the long arm of Chinese control.

In the American news media, some stories focused on the drama of Ugyen Trinley’s escape, others explored the Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan politics (including the Karmapa rivalry), and yet others tracked the Karmapa’s gratified international discipleship. In a March 6 story, "A Buddha Busts out," Newsweek published a gangsterish snapshot of the "teen deity" being whisked away in a private limousine. Time has been on the case since May 2, 1994, when it took a brief but trenchant look at the internecine intrigue surrounding the 17th Karmapa’s rise to power and international prestige, including the suspicious death of a third regent of the 16th Karmapa, Jamgon Kongtrul, in a 1992 car crash, that, according to Time, "each side has hinted darkly that the other may have engineered." Last July 17, Time’s Asia Edition followed up with a cover story featuring a full-page cover photo of the Karmapa facing front and the Dalai Lama in profile.

The New York Times covered all bases. Barry Bearak’s February 3 article came with photos of the two rivals for the Karmapa succession, a map of the region in which the escape occurred, a thorough and relatively dispassionate account of the history of the Karmapa line, and a close look at the etiology of the current succession dispute. By contrast, Barbara Crossette, reporting February 18 from the Karmapa’s monastery in Woodstock, focused (like many American reporters for regional papers) rather uncritically on the enthusiasm of the Karmapa’s local following: "The monastery here that was designed to be his home in the West has been filled with joy and anticipation. Its 30 members are expecting him to visit within a year. ‘That’s not a hope, that’s a definite,’ said Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, one of two Tibetan lamas at Woodstock." On August 27, Crossette considered the international picture from the spirited standpoint of Ugyen Trinley’s worldwide following: "Buddhists Ask India to Free a Teenage Leader."

The job of managing American public opinion on the Karmapa rivalry has fallen mainly to Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, friend of the Dalai Lama, and a former monk in the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa order. This despite the fact that the Kagyu and Gelugpa orders are themselves rivals, having competed for predominance within Tibet from 1641, when the fifth Dalai Lama was established by a Mongol army as absolute ruler of Tibet, until 1959, when the Tibetan uprising against the nine-year old Chinese occupation initiated the current Tibetan diaspora.

The progress of Thurman’s statements on the Karmapa rivalry has been halting, to say the least. On January 7, 2000, he was quoted by the Times’ Crossette as a spokesperson for the Dalai Lama’s position: "The Tibetan Karmapa was the primary reincarnation but…the Bhutanese contender could be accepted as a secondary reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa." A week later he corrected his earlier statement: "What I was not up to date on was that in 1997, the Dalai Lama asked the Shamar Lama to cut it out and to join in unity with the other three [regents]" ( In the subsequent spring issue of the well-known Buddhist magazine Tricycle—on whose board of advisers Thurman sits—an unidentified author provided a fresh resolution to the Karmapa dispute by reverting to Thurman’s earlier formulation: "Recently a middle position emerged, endorsed by the Dalai Lama: that there have been two reincarnations but that Ugyen Trinley Dorje is the primary one."

Under the circumstances, it is worth recalling what the Dalai Lama told the Fresno Bee during a visit to Stanford University back in 1994: "It was possible, he said, for a very high Tibetan Lama to experience several reincarnations at the same time. ‘As for the Karmapa, there could be two or three, but as far as the person who will sit on the throne, there will only be one. And we have formally recognized him inside Tibet.’"

What lies behind the twists and turns of the succession dispute is the more profound question of the future of the reincarnate lama tradition, which for centuries has been a fundamental article of Tibetan Buddhist faith as well as a pillar of political stability.

Having no national press, the Tibetans collect their news and commentary and make their concerns known internationally through various sources, including the online journal World Tibet Network and the Tibet Press Watch. There is also the more traditional mechanism of word of mouth. Thus circulate the private sentiments of such exiles as the late 11th Trungpa Tulku, Chokyi Gyatso (widely known as Chogyam Trungpa), an extremely influential lama of the Kagyu order and friend of the 16th Karmapa. It is rumored that prior to his death in 1987, Trungpa said he would not be back, thus leading his students to believe they should not seek out his reincarnation.

While another respected Kagyu lama, Thrangu Rinpoche—himself a good friend of Chogyam Trungpa—has been trying to vanquish doubts concerning the 17th Karmapa and thus preserve the tulku tradition, the Dalai Lama and another prominent Tibetan exile, Lhasang Tsering, appear more than ready to abandon it. In April of 1998 the Dalai Lama publicly questioned its usefulness and viability in an interview in the Indian Express. "I have always been opposing orthodox ideas," he said in reference to the origin of the Dalai Lama line in 1391. "If an institution that came into being 600 years ago loses relevance in modern times, it is logical to scrap it."

On July 6, 1999, the BBC reported the Dalai Lama as saying he would not reincarnate in Tibet in any areas under Chinese control if his successor were chosen in the traditional way. He also outlined other ways in which his successor might be chosen, including an approach similar to papal election. And he indicated that since 1969 he has made clear that it is up to the people of Tibet to decide whether or not the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue.

For his part, Tsering—a scholar, former president of the militant Tibetan Youth Congress, and former director of the largest school for Tibetan refugee children in Dharamsala—told the AP’s Arthur Max in January 2000 that Tibetans "are moving toward a democratic form of government. In the future, we will have a popularly elected chief executive." In this regard, Reuters picked up a suggestive remark made by the Dalai Lama during an October 13 news conference at the Central European University in Budapest: "The fall of Yugoslavia’s hardline government is proof that no country in the world can avoid democratic development, including China, the exiled Tibetan religious leader...said.... ‘Totalitarianism is not the future-that’s clear.’"

This potential transformation of Tibetan Buddhism represents a reaction against Chinese totalitarian pressures on both the practical and the theoretical levels. Not only is the tulku mode of succession no longer feasible, given China’s complete control of Tibet and its dictatorial global influence operating against an already severely weakened, and partially Disneyfied, Tibetan culture in diaspora. Evidently, it is no longer desirable. The spread of Tibetan Buddhism in a world bent on democracy appears to be calling for a more accountable way to transfer power.

This means that unless Ugyen Trinley and his Kagyu order manage to reach a genuine consensus on his succession as the 17th Karmapa, both are destined to become relics of Tibet’s theocratic past.