Robert A. F. Thurman
Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies
Chair, Department of Religion
Kent Hall Room 617, Mail code 3949
1140 Amsterdam Ave.
New York , NY 10027
Dear Robert A. F. Thurman,
am writing in response to your
letter, dated September 21, 2004. In that letter, you voluntarily
enter into the Kagyu controversy surrounding the recognition of
the 17th Karmapa. Since it is now, and has been in past generations,
the responsibility of the Shamarpas to handle such matters, I feel
obliged to respond.
is especially crucial for me to clearly reply to all the points
you make because you are a well-known and well-respected professor
of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States. As someone who has a lot
of influence in the context of American Buddhism and whose words
many people trust, it is my wish that you take seriously the effort
I am putting into clarifying some apparent misconceptions.
I will respond directly to your letter, then pose a question to
you, then in the end give some suggestions which I hope you will
take seriously. I am currently in Washington D.C., so if you wish
to challenge or question me on any of the points I make below I
encourage you to do so.
regret to learn that Lea Terhune's account of the 17th Karmapa,
Orgyen Trinley Dorje, in her book Karmapa: the Politics of Reincarnation,
has become the subject of a lawsuit in India. This is surprising,
since her perspective on the Karmapa and the unfortunate controversy
that developed within the Karma Kagyu lineage over his recognition,
is valid and reasonable.
it is clear that Lea Terhune supports Orgyen Trinley Rinpoche as
the genuine Karmapa, she in fact hardly addresses that issue in
her book at all.
far as the contend of the book goes, it takes up only the smallest
chapter. There is much more going on in her book, and it is on the
basis of those other points that she is being sued.
fact, her support for Orgyen Trinley Rinpoche is not an issue and
is not being addressed in court at all. It seems you have completely
missed the point of what is going on in the court case. We in fact
did not have to sue her for that particular point because there
have already been two famous cases addressing this matter: one In
India and one in Auckland, New Zealand. In both those court cases,
the supporters of Orgyen Trinley Rinpoche provided as much documentation
as they could and tried to prove that legally the authority to recognize
the incarnation of the Karmapas is in the hands of His Holiness
the Dalai Lama. Since that claim, however, goes against all the
traditional unbroken norms of our lineage, they lost both court
cases and were totally refuted.
court case currently in progress is something completely different.
For the most part, Lea Terhune's book is full of personal attacks
against her own, and Situ Rinpoche's, enemies and puts forward a
series of completely fabricated ‘facts'. Making statements that
constitute nothing less than a betrayal of the Karma Kagyu lineage,
she posits, for example, that since the time of the 10th Karmapa
the Karma Kagyu lineage is inauthentic. For instance, she casts
doubt on whether the candidate enthroned as the 10th Karmapa was
the real one. Nobody could ever get away with writing that in Tibetan,
so this work must be directed towards non-Tibetans for some specific
purpose. Perhaps in order to make sure that non-Tibetans don't chose
to follow the Karma Kagyu school. In any case, we selected six points
to fight legally, and it is on the basis of these six points that
we are suing both Ms. Terhune and Wisdom Publications. These six
points are as follows:
Terhune claims that I murdered Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche.
Terhune claims that General Secretary Topga Rinpoche sold
the Karmapa's monastery in Bhutan to the Bhutanese government in
order pay off his own personal loan.
She claims that before I recognized Thaye Dorje Rinpoche as Karmapa,
I had tried to recognize a Bhutanese prince as the 17th Karmapa.
She claims that I, Shamar Rinpoche, tried to have the ownership
of the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute
(KIBI) in New Delhi transferred to my own name.
She claims that my family is connected to CIA.
She claims that I bribed the Indian government to prevent
Orgyen Trinley Rinpoche from going to Sikkim.
court case concerns these six points alone. As you can see, only
the last has anything to do with Orgyen Trinley Rinpoche, and even
that has nothing to do with his recognition as the Karmapa.
have come to the conclusion, after much experience in this country,
that many professors, students and journalists here are what I refer
to as "package believers". By package believer, I refer to people
who fail to examine the details of any given situation. In this
case, even you, a highly respected professor at a top university,
did not bother to examine the particular details of the case you
are responding to. This is disappointing. When Lea Terhune was called
into a court case about her book you jumped to conclusion that it
must be about the recognition of Orgyen Trinley as Karmapa and issued
a statement to that effect.
recognition of the 17th Karmapa was done according to the traditions
of the Karma Kagyu lineage. A cryptic letter left by the previous
Karmapa was discovered by one of his chief lamas, Tai Situpa, and
then interpreted before it was brought before His Holiness the Dalai
Lama in June, 1992. H. H. Dalai Lama also confirmed the recognition,
not merely as a bureaucratic formality, but because he, too, had
a spiritual insight that corroborated the details given in the recognition
of all, with respect to the recognition of the 17th Karmapa, neither
the Tibetan Government in Exile nor H. H. Dalai Lama examined the
letter that Tai Situ Rinpoche claims was written by the late 16th
Karmapa. The letter he produced was locked into a golden gao, with
a hair from Guru Padmasambhava and some other holy relics and it
should still be at Rumtek Monastery, unless it was stolen in 1993.
While the late Karmapa's administration was prevented from properly
testing the letter forensically, they did examine at least the handwriting.
Comparing it with letters written by H. H. 16th Karmapa and letters
written by Tai Situ Rinpoche, it was discovered that each and every
word written looks like it was written by Tai Situ Rinpoche himself
and not by the 16th Karmapa. Again, I remind you the neither the
TGIE not H. H. Dalai Lama ever had a chance to examine that letter.
the 17th century, around the time of the 10th Karmapa, when the
Dalai Lama became temporal and spiritual head of Tibet, the Tibetan
government has required that the Dalai Lama giver permission for
the enthronement of the Karmapa at his seat, Tshurphu Monastery,
which is located near Lhasa, Tibet.
to historical records, the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th
Karmapas never had any approval or examination from the then government,
which at that time actually had authority over a country (as opposed
to the current government in exile which doesn't have any legal
authority). Among those Karmapas, the Dalai Lamas were never called
upon to approve or confirm their recognition.
the death of the 12th Karmapa, the 13th was recognized by the Nyingmapa
Lama Kathok Rigdzin Chenmo, who was a favourite Lama of the 12th
Karmapa, the 8th Shamarpa and the 8th Situpa. Kathok Rigdzin Chenmo
was also a friend of both the 7th Dalai Lama and Pholhawa, the King
of Tibet. The 7th Dalai Lama and Pholhawa the Desid of Tibet, both
gave their support and assistance to the process of recognizing
the 13th Karmapa, but even then were not called upon to approve
him. I will also point out that Kathok Rigdzin Chenmo's great service
to the Karma Kagyu, recognizing the 13th Karmapa, did not start
a new tradition of Karmapas being recognized by the Nyingmapa Kathok
I am trying to point out to you, is that even when the Dalai Lamas
and the Tibetan Government had the power as the ruling government
of Tibet to impose their interests on the Karma Kagyu they didn't
do it; even after the time of the 10th Karmapa, all later Karmapas
were recognized by either a Shamarpa, a Drukchen Rinpoche, a Situpa
Rinpoche, or sometimes (as in the case of the 13th Karmapa) a favorite
Lama from another school.
Once instance where the Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan government did
try to interfere in the process of recognizing the Karmapas was
during the time of the recognition of the 16th Karmapa. At that
time there was a boy, the son of the finance Minister Lungshawa,
whom the 13th Dalai Lama recognized as the 16th Karmapa. Karma Kagyu
lamas, on the other hand, recognized a boy from the Athubtsang family
of Derge. They rejected the 13th Dalai Lama's candidate, and the
13th Dalai Lama accepted that rejection and acknowledged the Kagyu
chosen candidate. That candidate grew up to be H. H. Rangjung Rigpe
the Shamarpa (the plaintiff in the case) has had a role in the recent
controversy over the recognition of the 17th Karmapa is undeniable.
Although the Dalai Lama issued numerous statements confirming and
later reiterating the authenticity of Orgyen Trinley Dorje as the
17th Karmapa, the Shamarpa has persisted in his efforts to promote
a rival candidate and denigrate the recognition of the Karmapa and
those who confirmed his recognition. This has been widely reported
in the international press. While the Shamarpa may have supporters
who subscribe to his version of the story, the view that the Shamarpa
holds, i.e., that his candidate Thaye Dorje is the 17th Karmapa,
is not generally accepted among Tibetans, and not at all by the
Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan government
did examine the Shamarpa's claims, but since he failed to present
convincing evidence to support the claims, they were dismissed.
TGIE never asked me for proof of my own recognition of the 17th
Karmapa. I also never requested their approval, as they are not
in a position to ask for such proof. Why? Because when you recognize
the reincarnation of a Lama, the past Lama's spirit had to come
from Nirvana or the Bardo to a new human form. At that point, the
appropriate spiritual teachers recognize it. And when one is such
a spiritual leader, that Lama is recognized either by seeing it
directly from one's supernatural mind, or via the prediction of
one's personal yidams (white or green Tara, for example, or Dharma
exists no tradition of asking for proof of such types of recognition.
This is because the process is beyond what people can perceive with
their normal senses. So I myself, being a Shamarpa, I am the proof
of the authority to recognize Karmapa according to the traditions
of the Karma Kagyu lineage. If I had produced a letter which I claimed
was written by the 16th Karmapa, then my letter would have been
examined by the 16th Karmapa's own administrators if they had any
doubts. They have the right to evaluate the authenticity of such
a letter if there are any doubts. Additionally, if my personal prediction
contradicted a letter which they deemed to authentic, they would
have the right to veto my recognition of the Karmapa. That power
to veto would depend on the Karmapa's administration proving publicly
that the letter is authentic and that it contradicts my prediction.
Then the final decision would depend on where the more convincing
Shamarpa has had to ask for approval or provide proof to the Dalai
Lamas or to the Tibetan government. I recognized Thaye Dorje Rinpoche
as the 17th Karmapa in 1993. He and his family then escaped in 1994.
I myself declared to the world he is the Karmapa and enthroned him
at Bodhgaya in 1996 without any confirmation from or contact with
either the TGIE or H.H. Dalai Lama.
should also be mentioned here that the recognition of reincarnate
Lamas is not conducted by popular vote. The number of devotees or
supporters has never been a valid means of establishing the authenticity
of a teacher. Many Karmapas and Shamarpas have led quite solitary
lives, spending many years at a time in retreat and with few disciples.
That has never caused anyone to doubt their authenticity.
controversy is not without precedent in Tibetan history, as Ms.
Terhune points out in her book. But it is historically significant
now because, in the 21st century, the dissension is not confined
to a remote Tibet, but affects followers of Tibetan Buddhism throughout
I agree with you completely. However much you are concerned by this
issue - as you clearly are - I'm sure you can be sympathetic to
how much more concerned I am. Traditionally, the Shamarpas lead
the Karma Kagyu lineage in concert with the Karmapas. This means
that I have the responsibility to protect the Karma Kagyu lineage.
Please think about how strongly you feel, then put yourself in my
shoes for a moment, and imagine how important it is to me to protect
the autonomy of the Karma Kagyu.
understand that you support H.H. Dalai Lama one hundred percent
and support completely the Gelukpa school which is the only school
you are devoted to. The attempt to give full authority over the
four schools to H.H. Dalai Lama, however, cannot be supported and
indeed does not have the support of any of the other schools.
I will move away from your letter and present you with a question
for reflection: if you use the political situation at the time of
the 10th Karmapa to prove that the Dalai Lamas have the authority
to recognize the Karmapas, you should also consider that from the
time of the Great 5th Dalai Lama it has been obligatory that the
reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas be approved by the Emperors of
China. Setting the precedent that you attempt to do here, how will
you prevent in the future, the Chinese government from claiming
its historical right to recognize the Dalai Lamas?
heads of the Karma Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya lineages
have never required the approval of either the leaders of China
or the Dalai Lamas. The precedent you are setting here will pave
the way for the collapse of every school of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelukpas
included. Please consider the long-term effects.
general outrage surrounding the whole Karmapa controversy is starting
to resemble the howling of crafty coyotes so enthralled by their
hunt that nobody can hear the soft voice of a lamb trying to sound
a warning. Situ Rinpoche totally failed to prove the so-called prediction
letter to be authentic, yet still this letter is waved around by
many of his collaborators as some kind of authentic proof.
you came to my problem voluntarily, I will offer you advice. You
are known here in the United States as a prominent Buddhist, a respected
Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and a political activist. I therefore
request that you not be a "package believer" and fall prey to becoming
a fanatical Buddhist. Buddhism usually teaches people how to think,
how to judge, how to evaluate. The young generations of this country
badly need training in how to think and evaluate. This I can see
clearly. In the last 25 years of experience
in the USA , I have seen that every decade people are becoming more
and more machine-minded and naive. If they see something special
or interesting they don't know how to go and explore the background.
Instead, they follow it like a stream of water winding forwards
and never looking back. This is a great nation formed by very, very
wise people. If the people of today don't learn how to judge religion,
politics and leaders, I am afraid that one day this great country
will fall into a dark age.
are a professor of Buddhism, a political activist, and a Buddhist,
so I encourage you to not mix up these many facets of your life.
For example, your political campaign for Tibet should not be mixed
with your job as a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. My personal request
to you is to not to be sectarian in your profession, and to please
be an honest scholar. I don't see any benefit for the US to participate
in and spread this sectarianism. To be Buddhist is enough.
I see the type of response you wrote in the case of Lea Terhune,
I am concerned that you may one day go so far as to discourage students
and speakers who have ever critiqued H.H. Dalai Lama or the TGIE,
and further, even discourage or block the careers of anyone who
is friends with any such people. Buddhists should not violate the
freedom of religion and discriminate against others. In a country
like the United States, which prides itself on democracy and freedom,
it is a shame that a tradition like Buddhism can be used to suppress
and limit people.