Who’s the Karmapa?

The controversy over just who is the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa has dogged the Kagyu sect for nearly three decades, after the 16th Karmapa died in 1981. Both claimants to the post—Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Trinley Thaye Dorje—have lived in Tibet for fewer number of years than the controversy has lasted.

The Karmapa Kagyu sect is older than the institution of the Dalai Lama, and even though the latter has endorsed Ogyen Trinley as the 17th Karmapa, the issue is yet to be resolved. Rival claims to the seat at the Rumtek monastery continue between those who have backed the selection made by Tai Situ Rinpoche and the other made by Shamar Rinpoche. The two Rinpoches were among the four regents appointed by the 16th Karmapa to select his successor. The contest between the two groups turned violent at some points in 1992-93, and the Sikkim High Court had to issue an injunction to stop the recognition of the 17th Karmapa. In 1994, Shamar pre-empted the court’s decision and appointed Trinley Thaye Dorje, who had escaped from Tibet that year, as the successor.

The other side of the story—Ogyen Trinley’s escape from Tibet and his sudden appearance in Dharamsala in January 2000—is also cause for concern. The issue gains more importance when seen in light of the fact that China had endorsed Ogyen Trinley as the Karmapa. The Chinese reaction to what happens south of the Himalayas including Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Ladakh will be of immediate importance to India, especially in terms of resolving the boundary question and territorial claims. China’s reference to Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet is part of a grander scheme to weaken the hold of Tibetan Buddhism, as also to continue to keep India on the back foot over the boundary issue.

The recovery of money (about US $1.5 million) from Ogyen Trinley’s office in the Gyuto monastery is yet another controversy, although he is not the first religious head in the world who is similarly well endowed. The stated purpose for the money was that it would be used to buy land to construct a monastery in Himachal Pradesh, even though local laws prohibit sale of land by non-residents. Pempa Tsering, the president of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, explained that this had happened because of ignorance of the law.

Although the Indian government allowed Ogyen Trinley to visit the United States in 2008, he was not allowed to visit Europe last year, nor allowed to travel to the United States in January 2011. Trinley Thaye was able to travel abroad including Hong Kong, Russia and Europe. Both of them are versatile with the internet, and their social networking sites have garnered a considerable following in the West. Ogyen Trinley’s overseas following also functions as a pressure group that tries to coerce New Delhi on issues relating to Tibet. The sect’s Dharma Chakra Centres in India and abroad are lucrative ventures, and it is conceivable that this is also a cause of rivalry between the two groups.

Given that there are two claimants to the succession to Rumtek and therefore of the Gelugpa (a large Kagyu following which is larger than the Dalai Lama’s sect), a division would be detrimental to the Tibetan Buddhist cause. Furthermore, in the conceivable future, there will be a successor to the present Dalai Lama—and it is likely that the Tibetan movement will be in similar conflict of having to choose between a possible Beijing-appointed successor, or one selected by Tibetans living outside Tibet. As a consequence, the two strongest Tibetan movements based out of Tibet, and connected with India, would weaken. This would affect ties between India and China. The sensitivities of the Dalai Lama need to be taken into account as well. Whether a solution will be reached—and it what manner—remains to be seen.