He is a cunning strategist and a tireless promoter. Born a humble
boy, Akong's lifelong dream was to become a great leader. In short,
Akong's story is a cautionary fable. It illustrates the corrosive
power of ambition on a mans heart.
This account of Akong's early years in Tibet and India relies on
first-hand accounts by HH Shamar Rinpoche and Dronyer Ngodrup, a
long-time official at Karmapa's main seat at Rumtek Monastery. Our
account of Akong's later years and his time in Europe relies on
three additional sources. Jigme Rinpoche and Tsorpönla served
as attendants to Karmapa in Europe and Hannah Nydahl served as his
story begins in Old Tibet. In the first half of the twentieth century
there was a small village in the region of Tshawa Pashö in
eastern Tibet. In this village lived a ngakpa, or sorcerer, of local
repute. As in many villages of Tibet where popular Buddhism blended
into magic, this ngakpa made his abode in the modest village temple,
Drölma Lhakang, where he performed simple pujas. For a fee,
the ngakpa gave blessings, cast spells and answered the everyday
needs of villagers for white and black magic. It was even said that
this ngakpa could cause someones death, on request of course. Though
he was not considered a reincarnation of a high lama or any other
known personage, the villagers looked up to this ngakpa and respected
him for his powers.
village was under the jurisdiction of Situ Rinpoches seat at Palpung
Monastery. When the ngakpa died, the villagers asked the 11th Tai
Situ to recognize a reincarnation for their late magician.
Rinpoche knew that in Buddhist doctrine, village ngakpas generally
do not have the power to determine their own rebirths. Yet, in old
Tibet there were many tulkus of convenience, and Situ wanted to
please the villagers. Therefore, he selected the young son of a
local nomad family as the new reincarnation. Being just a kind of
honorary tulku, the boy received no training in Buddhist ritual
or instruction in philosophy from the monastery. Indeed, he had
no formal education at all, but just picked up a few bits of Buddhist
lore here and there from monks and lamas who occasionally passed
through the village.
the boy was in his teens, at the request of his family, Palpung
Monastery made the boy a monk. Then he was sent to an initiation
of the Rinchen Terzöd given by Trungpa Rinpoche at his monastery
at Surmang. There, the village tulku got his first big break: he
met Trungpa Rinpoche and became his disciple and attendant. Now,
in the service of a powerful lama, the boy would have had the chance
to get an education, if he had wanted it. However, the Chinese invasion
of eastern Tibet in the early 1950s cut short Akong's life with
Trungpa Rinpoche in Tibet. The boy lost any chance for a traditional
Tibetan education. At age 18 or 19, he fled the country with his
master. Needless to say, while in Tibet before 1959,
well did Akong know the late 16th Karmapa before leaving Tibet?
Though he had met the late Karmapa a couple times or more in large
crowds at formal ceremonies, he never had a chance to meet Karmapa
one-on-one. So it cannot be said that Akong knew HH Karmapa in Tibet.
in India: A Sullen Survivor
the Chinese invasion, Trungpa escaped to India and Akong accompanied
him. Shortly after crossing the border, the pair came to Kalimpong
so that Trungpa could visit Gyalwa Karmapa at Rumtek Monastery for
a few days. As Trungpa's attendant, Akong did not accompany Trungpa
on his visit to Rumtek, but remained alone in Kalimpong. Somehow,
during Trungpa's travels back and forth between Rumtek and Kalimpong,
Akong and Trungpa met the 16th Karmapa's general secretary, Damchoe
short of funds after their escape from Tibet, the pair tried to
sell him a dzi, a decorative pendant, which they felt they could
part with. But the general secretary was not interested. This made
Akong quite angry. He was heard in Kalimpong to make many derogatory
comments about the secretary and about HH Karmapa himself. Akong
complained that even though Karmapa received so many offerings,
yet he would not spare the money to buy a single dzi from a couple
of lamas who were in trouble. Such gossip from a low-ranking lama
would normally have meant little at Rumtek. But because Akong was
the attendant of Trungpa Rinpoche, his talk was noted by Karmapa's
this time, young Situ Rinpoche was living in Gangtok. There was
no vehicle road at the time from town to the monastery, so it took
nearly a whole day to make the trip between Gangtok and Rumtek on
foot. The monks at Rumtek heard that Trungpa Rinpoches attendant
was meeting Situ Rinpoche on the Gangtok road but not coming to
Rumtek. Perhaps this was because of the distance to Rumtek or for
some other reason not explained. It seemed perhaps that Akong did
not want to put himself in the presence of HH Karmapa. Again, though
Akong had little standing himself, we noted his affairs because
of his connection with Trungpa Rinpoche.
First Meeting with Karmapa
that time Trungpa met Frida Bedi, who organized the now-famous young
lamas school in New Delhi. In 1961, Mrs. Bedi invited Trungpa Rinpoche
to become the schools headmaster and to teach Buddhist philosophy
to the lamas there. Trungpa accepted this invitation, and put his
attendant Akong in charge of the kitchen and also in charge of maintaining
school discipline. Akong now would have his first chance to meet
Karmapa personally. But the meeting would not be an auspicious one.
1962, HH Karmapa visited New Delhi. HH Karmapa rented a house about
ten minutes walk away from Mrs. Bedi's school, in the Greenpark
area of New Delhi. He remained there for about a month.
day, at around 10 o clock in the morning, the young lamas of Mrs.
Bedi's school went out to pay their respects to Gyalwa Karmapa.
Akong followed them to the house where Karmapa was staying. Akong
entered the house and found His Holiness cleaning bird cages and
talking with the young lamas. In the presence of HH Karmapa, Akong
angrily scolded the young lamas for being absent from school without
leave. He ordered them to return to Mrs. Bedi's house immediately.
Shocked, Karmapa confronted Akong about this unusual behavior. Akong
answered that it was his job as caretaker of the school to enforce
school rules. Karmapa stared dumbfounded at Akong, who then beat
his own retreat. Clearly, this was a direct challenge to HH Karmapa.
was also known to often criticize Gyalwa Karmapa behind his back
for supposedly showing disrespect in the past to Akong's lama, Situ
Rinpoche. This criticism got back to Karmapa through the young lamas.
early 1963 Shamarpa was enthroned at Rumtek. Right afterwards, he
was sent to Dharamsala for a special ceremony under HH Dalai Lama
to lift the Tibetan governments 170-year ban on the Shamar reincarnations.
In those days, all the exile lamas thought that they would be returning
to Tibet in a few years. They thought Tibetan government approval
was needed for Shamar Rinpoche. Getting this approval was a way
to show respect to HH Dalai Lama.
this time, Frida Bedi had moved had her lama school to Dalhousie
near Dharamsala. There were rumors that two high rinpoches, Athro
Rinpoche and Lama Karma Trinley, took the day-long trip by bus from
the school at Dalhousie to pay respects to Shamar Rinpoche, but
that Akong declined to accompany them. Instead, Akong was known
to be angry at what he saw as Karmapa's nepotism. Akong thought
it was wrong that Karmapa would recognize his own nephew as Shamarpa.
He also was angry that HH Karmapa should have that nephew reinstated
by the Tibetan exile government, allowing Shamarpa to take his former
position as the number two ranking lama in the Karma Kagyu lineage
and effectively displacing Situ in the hierarchy.
the fall, Trungpa won a Spalding Scholarship to study at Oxford,
and he took Akong with him to England. It was known at the time
that Trungpa Rinpoche was very enthusiastic about the enthronement
by the time he left for England in 1963, Akong had never spent much
time with HH Karmapa. At Mrs. Bedi s school he was a member
of the staff busy with the kitchen and the children while Karmapa
for his part was occupied by a steady stream of visitors. But even
on the one occasion when Akong did have a chance to interact with
His Holiness, Akong showed nothing but disrespect to Karmapa. So
it can hardly be said that Akong was close to the late Karmapa during
this period. And it can certainly not be said that Akong is a good
authority on Karmapa s activities at this time.
couple years after Chögyam Trungpa had arrived in the United
Kingdom, he decided that he wanted to organize a Buddhist center.
He asked Akong to help by serving as administrator of the new center,
Samye Ling in Scotland. To set up a Karma Kagyu center, the lamas
needed a kind of license or certificate of good-standing from their
spiritual leader Gyalwa Karmapa. Without this imprimatur, British
students would not have trusted Trungpa Rinpoche and his attendant
Akong as spiritual teachers. So Trungpa wrote to Karmapa to request
such a certificate. Akong did the same.
a significant lama of the lineage and having the full trust of Karmapa,
Trungpa Rinpoche had no trouble getting Karmapa s approval.
Akong s case was different. He must have worried that his
past expressions of frustration against Karmapa-the widely heard
gossip and the open demonstrations of disrespect-would hurt his
chances of getting a certificate. Therefore, Akong made a big change
in his behavior at this time, and began to announce his admiration
for HH Karmapa whenever he could get an audience. We are not sure
if this was successful. We do believe that HH Karmapa did send Akong
some kind of certificate, perhaps a very formulaic recommendation
appropriate for a minor lama who was the attendant of Trungpa Rinpoche.
Brother Jamdrak, alias Lama Yeshe
also had a younger brother, Jamdrak. Since taking vows in 1980 in
Woodstock, NY, Jamdrak has called himself Lama Yeshe. Next to Akong,
Lama Yeshe is the major source for Mick Brown s discussion
of the late Karmapa.
Jamdrak is no better source on the late Karmapa than his brother.
Jamdrak began his career as a student at the English-language secondary
school in New Delhi. After finishing there, he could not find funds
to attend university. So he wrote to HH Karmapa at Rumtek asking
for employment. Karmapa assented and Jamdrak came to Rumtek in 1967.
This was Jamdrak s first time meeting HH Karmapa.
he could speak English, Jamdrak was given the job of meeting Indian
visitors and ushering them in and out of meetings with Karmapa.
So Jamdrak became a member of Karmapa s staff. Yet, when asked,
he always replied that he belonged to Situ Rinpoche s administration
and saw Situ as his guru. Situ Rinpoche was at Rumtek at the time
for his studies, and Jamdrak spent nearly all his off hours with
his master, Tai Situ. Jamdrak remained a little more than a year
and a half at Rumtek before his brother Akong sent for him from
England and he left Karmapa s service. During his time at
Rumtek, perhaps Jamdrak closely assisted the late Karmapa for six
or seven months only, since Karmapa was away on travels to Bhutan
and India for five or six months during this period.
Bizarre Attempt to Embarrass Shamar Rinpoche
1970 or 1971, Akong returned to India. At that time he came to Rumtek
to see HH Karmapa and Situ Rinpoche. Akong was put in the room reserved
for Mrs. Bedi s visits. Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche and Chögling
Rinpoche were staying at Rumtek at this time. These two sons of
Tulku Orgyen Rinpoche were closely linked with HH Karmapa and were
also close friends and classmates of Shamar Rinpoche. Akong knew
that Chökyi Nyima was close to Gyalwa Karmapa and Shamar Rinpoche.
One time, he told Chökyi Nyima casually that he knew Shamar
Rinpoche when he was a child and his name was Dorjela. But now that
he has become Shamar Rinpoche, Akong said, Akong had no desire to
be friends with him.
Rinpoche did not know Akong Tulku personally but tells us that whenever
Akong would see him at Rumtek, he would always try to avoid running
into him. One incident in particular illustrates the strange attitude
of resentment that Akong displayed towards Shamarpa.
after Akong left Rumtek in 1971, he sent a letter to Shamar Rinpoche.
The letter made a curious request. It asked Rinpoche to list the
lamas depicted in the 42 thangkas at Rumtek in the Golden Rosary
series. Rinpoche was curious that the minor lama who had avoided
him while at Rumtek should now make such a request through a letter.
Nonetheless, hoping to be helpful, Rinpoche decided to reply. He
drew a diagram of the Golden Rosary with the names of each lama.
The diagram showed correctly that in the Golden Rosary there were
six Shamarpas, three Situpas and one Gyaltsab. There were also two
Jamgon Kongtruls who were added in very recent times, along with
various other lamas.
sending this letter, Shamar Rinpoche never received a reply. But
he continued to wonder why Akong would approach him with such a
question. Would it not have made more sense for Akong to ask either
Thrangu Rinpoche, the abbot of Rumtek, or his own lama, Situ Rinpoche,
who was only a year and a half younger than Shamar Rinpoche?
best guess was that perhaps Akong was deliberately trying to humiliate
Shamar Rinpoche. Akong, as we said, had never received a formal
education in Buddhist history. So it is possible, Rinpoche surmises,
that Akong thought that all the lamas wearing red crowns in the
Golden Rosary thangkas were incarnations of his own guru, Situ Rinpoche,
rather than Shamarpas. So, perhaps Akong thought he would embarrass
Shamar by making him point this out. As it turned out, Akong got
a reply that he didn t expect. This would explain his failure
to respond to Shamar Rinpoche s answer. If anything, this
encounter deepened Akong s resentment for Shamarpa.
Karmapa in 1974
1974, HH Karmapa made his first trip to the West. On his way across
Europe Gyalwa Karmapa was hosted at centers run either by Lame Ole
Nydahl or Kalu Rinpoche. Only in the United Kingdom did Karmapa
stay with Akong.
still needed Gyalwa Karmapa s support to bolster his standing
with British Buddhists. So he pretended respect to Karmapa in order
to enhance his own prestige, although this must have galled him,
given his resentment of HH Karmapa.
after Karmapa arrived at Samye Ling, Akong made an unusual request.
He asked Karmapa not to visit the United States as the guest of
Trungpa Rinpoche as had been planned. By this time, Akong had broken
with his former master and was trying to damage his reputation.
On hearing this, HH Karmapa scolded Akong and left immediately for
this time, Karmapa s total visit with Akong had been just
under two weeks.
Himself Along on Karmapa s European Tour: 1977
1977 Gyalwa Karmapa made a second visit to the West. This time,
Akong was more aggressive in his efforts to get close to Karmapa.
Akong invited himself to follow Karmapa around Europe. As Karmapa s
group stopped at Kalu Rinpoche s many centers around Europe,
Akong was heard to make frequent disparaging remarks to HH Karmapa
about Kalu. Unfortunately, this continuous stream of calumny did
have a chilling effect on the relations between the late Karmapa
and Kalu Rinpoche. Akong would later regret his role in creating
distrust between Karmapa and Kalu. .
would also later regret a particularly embarrassing episode that
occurred at Kalu Rinpoche s center in Brussels.
at the beginning of the tour, Akong had managed to get a copy of
letterhead with Karmapa s official crest. On this purloined
stationery, Akong had an order typed in Karmapa s name. This
order appointed a new director of all Karma Kagyu Buddhist centers
in Europe-none other than Akong Tulku himself. All through the trip,
Akong was looking for the right moment to present this letter for
Karmapa s signature. He preferred a time when Karmapa would
not actually try to read the letter or query him about it, because
Akong knew that this was the only way Karmapa would sign.
it wouldn t matter whether Karmapa tried to read it or not.
The letter was written in English, a language Akong knew that HH
Karmapa did not understand.
found his opportunity during a busy meeting of western students
with HH Karmapa at Kalu Rinpoche s center in Brussels. While
Karmapa was surrounded by people making various requests, Akong
slipped his letter on the table where Karmapa was working. Akong
asked for a quick signature, as if it was some routine matter. Being
perhaps too innocent in worldly affairs, Karmapa took out his pen.
Only quick action by his secretary Achi Tsephel prevented Karmapa
from signing. On seeing Akong s letter, Achi quickly bent
over Karmapa. In a panic, Achi whisked the letter away.
the great embarrassment of Akong, Achi then proceeded to translate
this letter for HH Karmapa.
hearing the letter s contents, Karmapa became angry. But Akong
didn t back down. Instead, showing his signature boldness,
Akong responded that Karmapa himself had told Akong to have this
letter drawn up. Karmapa answered sharply that if he had needed
a letter, he would have had his own secretary draft it. This left
Akong quite flushed, and he departed HH Karmapa in a huff. After
this, Karmapa began to realize that Akong s criticisms of
Kalu Rinpoche were probably unfounded, and the two lamas repaired
their strained relationship.
returned in shame to Samye Ling. All told, he had spent about three
weeks with Karmapa on this trip.
knew that he had lost much face that day in Brussels. He worried
that his career in Europe was threatened. So, in early 1979, Akong
made two apologies to try to repair his reputation. First, he apologized
to Kalu Rinpoche for spreading slander against him to Karmapa in
Europe. Then he came to Rumtek to confess to Karmapa himself. In
both cases, he had to sponsor pujas to purify himself. The Himalayan
Buddhist community viewed this as a humiliation for Akong.
from Karmapa in Body, Speech and Mind
sum up, Akong Tulku had never been close to the late 16th Karmapa.
He did not meet HH Karmapa in Tibet personally. And though he did
meet Karmapa in both India and in Europe, their encounters were
brief and tense.
he escaped to India, Karmapa s base was Rumtek, which Akong
visited just for a matter of a few days. Unlike his brother Jamdrak,
Akong was never part of Karmapa s staff, even for a brief
period. He only came into contact with Rumtek as the attendant of
Chögyam Trungpa. While Akong was considered a Karma Kagyu lama,
albeit a very minor one, he was under the jurisdiction of Situ Rinpoche,
not of Karmapa. In New Delhi, Akong also met Karmapa two or three
times, but these encounters were memorable only for being short
and disappointing for Akong.
Samye Ling in Scotland, Akong did receive from Karmapa a couple
letters to support fundraising efforts in the UK. The only real
time Akong spent with Karmapa was when Karmapa visited Samye Ling
for two weeks in 1974 and when Akong accompanied Karmapa s
entourage through Europe in 1977, for three weeks. This makes a
total of five weeks that Akong spent with Karmapa in Europe. This
is hardly enough to qualify Akong as any kind of authority on the
younger brother Jamdrak, as we mentioned above, spent a year and
a half in Karmapa s employ at Rumtek, though Karmapa was present
for only about half that time. The only other possibility Jamdrak
would have had to meet the late Karmapa was in early 1980 when HH
Karmapa came to Woodstock, NY for a few weeks. However, at that
time Jamdrak had just taken monk s vows (becoming Lama Yeshe).
He was in retreat under Khenpo Karthar during HH Karmapa s
whole visit and did not have the chance to meet Karmapa. Shortly
after this visit, Karmapa died, so obviously the new lama Yeshe
would have had no chance to meet him.
relationship with the late Karmapa was superficial, but it was not
strained as was his brother Akong s. One might compare Akong s
relationship with Karmapa to the relationship between Iago and Othello
in Shakespeare s play. Like Iago, Akong understood the 16th
Karmapa s personality only well enough to try to deceive him.
And like Iago, Akong wanted only to feed his own ambition and exact
revenge against Karmapa for perceived insults.
are dozens of genuine administrators of the late Karmapa still alive.
They have far superior knowledge than both Yeshe and his brother.
They also lack Akong s resentment of Karmapa. So we wonder
why Brown would have chosen his two lamas as sources. The only explanation
we can imagine is that Brown was trying to please his teacher Akong
and help boost his reputation.
believe that the many errors in Brown s text can be traced
to these two unreliable sources. In future installments we will
address these errors. We hope that this discussion will help readers
of Brown s book and all who are interested in the Karmapa
controversy to judge for themselves.
time, we will share an open letter to Mick Brown himself outlining
what we see as his intentional bias in treating the major points
of the Karmapa controversy.
Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization
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