Mick Brown attempts to make Topga Rinpoche one of the main villains
in the morality tale that drives his book The Dance of 17 Lives:
The Incredible True Story of Tibet's 17th Karmapa (Bloomsbury,
earlier installments of this series, my colleague Lama Karma Wangchuk
has discussed how Brown used uninformed and unreliable sources like
Akong Tulku and his brother Jamdrak (aka, Lama Yeshe) to make insinuations
against the late 16th Karmapa and Shamar Rinpoche. Now, I would
like to show how Brown uses an equally biased and uninformed source,
Tenzin Namgyal, to attack one of the most faithful servants of the
late Karmapa, Topga Rinpoche.
let us examine the credibility of Tenzin Namgyal as a source for
accurate information about Topga Rinpoche. Then, we will look at
the relationship of Topga Rinpoche with both Damchoe Yongdu and
with the late 16th Karmapa. Finally, I will answer the four main
charges that Tenzin makes against Topga that are repeated in Brown's
Credibility of Tenzin Namgyal
years, Tenzin Namgyal served as an assistant secretary under Damchoe
Yongdu and Topga Rinpoche in the late Karmapa's administration.
Tenzin worked well with Topga. He was even a vocal supporter of
Topga in a couple of key disagreements with Damchoe. However, the
relationship between the two soured in the late eighties.
years, Topga and others in the Karmapa's administration had suspected
that Tenzin was taking money from the Tibetan Government-in-Exile
in Dharamsala to provide secret intelligence on the doings of the
Karmapa and his seat at Rumtek Mona stery, located in India's nor
thea stern Sikkim state. Topga suspected that Tenzin may have been
on the payroll of Dharamsala as early as 1977. However, Topga would
not act against Tenzin until he had conclusive evidence that his
junior colleague was indeed acting as a paid spy. This evidence
came only in 1989. At that time, Topga confronted Tenzin. Receiving
no satisfactory reply to the charges, Topga asked for and received
this time on, Tenzin Namgyal became the implacable enemy of Topga
Rinpoche. He allied himself with Situ Rinpoche and those who supported
Orgyen Trinley's Karmapa claim. He then became known as a critic
of his former senior colleague and was heard often to repeat serious
criticisms of Topga, to question his integrity generally and to
imply that Topga had acted against the interests of the Karmapa.
Topga Rinpoche’s Relationship with Damchoe Yongdu and the
provide background on Topga Rinpoche's work for the late Karmapa,
I spoke with the two brothers of the Karmapa's late General Secretary
Damchoe Yongdu, Ven. Dronyer Ngodrup and Dechang Nagu. Aside from
being brothers of the late general secretary, these men were both
core members of the Karmapa's administration at Tsurphu Mona stery
in Tibet. After the Karmapa fled to India, they remained with the
Karmapa's administration when it was reestablished at Rumtek. Dronyer
Ngodrup, a senior monk, was the chief of protocol and ritual master
for the Karmapa. Dechang Nagu, a layman, served as assistant general
secretary of the Karmapa's administration before Tenzin Namgyal
himself was appointed to this office.
1949 or 1950, my brother Damchoe Yongdu married Topga Rinpoche's
mother Yangchen, the sister of the 16th Karmapa, after she separated
from her first husband,” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “They were married
when Topga Rinpoche was a child of twelve or thirteen years old,
at Tsurphu Mona stery.” This made Damchoe the stepfather of Topga
the marriage, we two brothers immediately took to our new nephew
and became close friends,” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “We were close
to Topga's age, and became just like brothers.”
his teens, Topga Rinpoche showed an aptitude for study. He took
diligently to his books and excelled in each subject of the traditional
Tibetan Buddhist curriculum. In recognition of his learning, at
age seventeen, the Karmapa awarded Topga two titles: Dorje Lopon
(Vajrayana Ritual Master) in recognition of his knowledge of Buddhism;
and Garchen Thripa, an administrative title that enabled Topga to
act as regent over Rumtek in the Karmapa's absence.
1959, the Chinese Red Army invaded Tibet and all the important lamas
fled to India. Topga Rinpoche and his family joined the exodus,
though his mother was weak from a long fight against cancer. This
group just made it to Bhutan when Topga's mother died. “The exhaustion
of the trip must have been too much for her,” said Dronyer Ngodrup.
Since Topga's father had died several years earlier, the loss of
his mother made Topga Rinpoche an orphan.
Karmapa and his party settled in Sikkim, at Rumtek. In 1962, the
widower Damchoe Yongdu married Lekshe Drolma, a daughter of Thutop
Namgyal, the Land Steward at Tsurphu Monastery back in Tibet.
he was already 21, Topga Rinpoche remained a beloved stepson of
my brother Damchoe Yongdu,” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “However, shortly
after the wedding, Topga and my brother had some misunderstandings.
In this dispute, which was unclear to me and my younger brother
Dechang Nagu, the Karmapa took the side of our brother Damchoe,
who was a senior member of his administration and known to be a
was curious about this dispute, so I asked Shamar Rinpoche about
it. He told me that though it was not widely known at the time,
Topga and his stepfather argued about who should inherit the substantial
collection of jewelry of Topga Rinpoche's mother, who came from
a wealthy aristocratic family. Damchoe wanted to present the jewels
to his new bride. But Topga thought that he should inherit the jewels,
which represented his mother's whole estate. According to Shamar
Rinpoche, Topga and Damchoe fought bitterly about these jewels,
which consisted of several strands of perfect Tibetan dzi stones
and rare coral beads given to Topga's mother by her first husband,
the lord of Ngolog, a small principality in eastern Tibet. In the
end, Damchoe gave all the jewels to his new wife and Topga received
no inheritance from his mother.
this dispute, the Karmapa and Topga exchanged strong words, as did
Topga and our brother Damchoe,” Dronyer Ngodrub said. “Yet, my brother
and I stuck by Topga. We had been his friend since he was a fatherless
child just entering our family, and we stayed by his side now that
he was an orphan.” Interestingly, at this time, according to Ngodrup,
Assistant Secretary Tenzin Namgyal also took the side of Topga Rinpoche,
publicly arguing for the merits of Topga.
Topga Rinpoche and Damchoe Yongdu forgot their differences and reestablished
their former affection for each other. “They worked together harmoniously
in the Karmapa's administration until Damchoe's death in 1981,”
said Dronyer Ngodrup.
after a brief period of unity for the first few years in India,
centuries-old divisions began to resurface among the Tibetan exile
community. To strengthen its position, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile
began trying to establish more control over the traditionally autonomous
religious orders of the Kagyu and Nyingma as well as over the noble
families of eastern Tibet, who had ruled over what were essentially
principalities independent of Lhasa.
religious orders and noble families decided to unite to preserve
their autonomy. In 1964, the leaders of the Kagyu and Nyingma schools
got together with leaders of the principal families of eastern Tibet.
They founded a group known as the Thirteen Settlements and elected
the Karmapa its spiritual leader. The group held its inaugural meeting
in New Delhi and the Karmapa sent Topga Rinpoche as his representative.
“The Karmapa placed immense trust in Topga Rinpoche. But because
Topga was still young, the Karmapa sent me along to New Delhi as
a kind of chaperone,” said Dronyer Ngodrup. Topga discharged his
duties at the conference entirely to the satisfaction of the Karmapa.
next major event in his Topga's life would be returning his monk's
vows and getting married. To discuss this, let me turn now to Tenzin
Namgyal's version as told by Mick Brown.
Tenzin’s Criticisms Retold by Brown
Brown repeats four very serious criticisms of Topga, all attributed
directly or indirectly to Tenzin Namgyal:
married a Bhutanese princess against the wishes of the late
had no official duties in the Karmapa’s administration and was
not personally devoted to Karmapa’s affairs
was guilty of smuggling goods in and out of India
a disagreement, Topga may have murdered his predecessor as Karmapa’s
General Secretary, Damchoe Yongdu
me answer these points one by one.
Claim 1: Topga married a Bhutanese princess against the
wishes of the late 16th Karmapa
Brown talks about Topga's marriage. He claims that according to
Tenzin Namgyal, Karmapa was very angry about Topga's giving up his
robes and getting married:
marriage incensed the Karmapa, who regarded the monastic life
as the highest possible calling and took a dim view of those
who gave up their robes. It is said that in the courtyard at
Rumtek he smashed his nephew’s seat to smithereens, and ordered
the debris to be thrown down the mountainside, proclaiming,
“Let not a mote of dust rise up here again.” But in 1968, when
the Karmapa traveled to Bhutan, Topga pleaded with him for forgiveness
and to be given a title that would lend him some status in his
new life. (113)
attributes these words to Tenzin Namgyal, but these are certainly
not Tenzin's words. They seem more like the words of Akong or Situ.
First, these events never happened as described, and Tenzin would
not dare to create such a bold lie. Second, the phrasing and description,
even in English, sound much like the overheated diction of either
Situ Rinpoche or Akong Tulku.
1966, Topga Rinpoche met the elder sister of the King of Bhutan,
Princess Ashi Chokyi in Thimphu. Topga Rinpoche was still a monk,
but this was a case of love at first sight, and when the two met
in New Delhi later that year, their romance was sealed. The two
became engaged to be married.
first, Topga would have to return his monk's vows to his uncle,
the Karmapa. Brown correctly reports that the Karmapa was indeed
angry at Topga Rinpoche. As a monk, the Karmapa thought that a monastic
life was the highest calling. And he was also sorry to lose Topga
Rinpoche as Ritual Master. However, the Karmapa made his displeasure
known to his nephew only in private. “It is a complete lie to say
that the Karmapa showed any anger to Topga in public,” said Dronyer
the administration of Rumtek set up the traditional ceremony for
a monk to return his vows. Topga Rinpoche had to sponsor a puja,
the Rumtek monks recited the Heart Sutra and then the Karmapa accepted
Topga's monk's vow back from him. Monks over the centuries have
participated in this ceremony to leave the monastic life. Topga
became just another in this long tradition.
Karmapa did not remain angry for long, and he did not let Topga's
marriage stand between himself and his nephew. In 1968, right after
Topga's wedding, the Karmapa visited Thimphu as a guest of the royal
family of Bhutan. In May, the Karmapa met Topga and appointed him
honorary general secretary of the Karmapa Labrang, allowing him
to succeed to the office on the retirement or death of the current
general secretary, his stepfather Damchoe Yongdu. This title was
in addition to Topga's role on the board of the Karmapa Charitable
Trust, established to take over the Karmapa's affairs at his death.
At the same time, recognizing that this ceremony took place in the
royal palace in Thimphu, the King of Bhutan gave Topga a title of
his own, honorary provincial governor, complete with the red robe
and sword of that office.
Karmapa would not have showered so many honors on Topga if he had
been angry at him for long,” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “Indeed, from
this time until the Karmapa's death, the Karmapa made many special
requests of Topga, who remained his trusted nephew. The Karmapa
asked Topga to sponsor many projects at Rumtek. He even regularly
ordered rare birds from Topga's trading company, which Topga provided
free of charge.”
Claim 2: Topga had no official duties in the Karmapa’s administration
and was not personally devoted to the Karmapa’s affairs
continues, that though the Karmapa had appointed Topga as an assistant
general secretary to Damchoe Yongdu,
Holiness never assigned [Topga] any official work,” Tenzin Namgyal
told me, “and Topga never once showed up at Rumtek before the
Karmapa’s death. But after the Karmapa died, then he started
to show up. Topga was really a businessman.”
Topga had become a businessman, as befitted a layman in the prime
of life, the rest of this is incorrect. Topga Rinpoche visited Rumtek
several times after the wedding and showed his support for Karmapa's
activity through frequent acts of generosity to Rumtek until the
Karmapa's death in 1981.
1971, the Karmapa took an entourage of more than 300 monks to Bhutan
to perform the 45-day summer retreat at to the building site for
Tashi Choling, a monastery that was to be built for Karmapa at Bumthang.
Topga Rinpoche and his wife Ashi Chokyi provided food and lodging
for the 16th Karmapa, all 300 monks and even the Karmapa's administrative
staff. Tenzin Namgyal was one of those who put on weight after enjoying
the tasty Bhutanese dishes provided by Topga Rinpoche and his royal
Rinpoche frequently visited the Karmapa. After his marriage, and
during the entire period that Brown refers to, Topga was a great
benefactor of Rumtek and made many gifts to the monastery out of
his own funds.
purchased a complete antique set of the Kangyur and Tenjur—respectively,
the Buddhist canon and traditional commentaries in Tibetan language—which
he donated to Rumtek’s library. Such a purchase would have been
far beyond the means of Rumtek’s budget at this time.
collected key texts of the 7 th Karmapa, had them printed and
distributed free of charge to monks at Rumtek.
offered several hundred yellow robes to the monastic community.
entirely from his own funds and at considerable effort and expense,
Topga Rinpoche visited Japan at the request of the Karmapa to
acquire rare birds for the Karmapa’s aviary.
the biggest job of all, Topga Rinpoche sponsored construction
of a retreat center at Rumtek, which was completed in 1976.
He also covered the cost of room and board for all retreatants
during the period 1976 to 1990. In today’s dollars, the cost
of the construction alone would have been about US $500,000.
did all these things out of his deep devotion to the late Karmapa.
He also frequently visited the Karmapa at Rumtek. When the Karmapa
started to get sick in 1979, Topga also traveled extensively to
assist him, meeting the Karmapa not only in Rumtek but also in Hong
Kong, Chicago, and in half a dozen other places.
Claim 3: Topga was guilty of smuggling goods in and out
then relates Tenzin’s charge that Topga was a smuggler:
sort of business [was Topga involved in]? I asked.
Tenzin Namgyal laughed. “Smuggling!”
This aspect of Topga’s activities was well known to the Indian
authorities. In March 1980, customs at Calcutta intercepted
seven packages belonging to Topga containing silver worth
400,000 rupees (around £50,000) which he was attempting to
smuggle out of the country into Hong Kong. But following the
intervention of the Bhutanese royal family, the silver was
returned to Topga and no charges were brought.
then relates a story about a shipment of wristwatches of Topga's
that was stopped by Indian authorities but again released after
intervention by the royal family of Bhutan.
is a strange story for a couple reasons, whether it comes entirely
from Tenzin Namgyal or whether Brown added some of his own embellishments.
his trading activities were Topga Rinpoche's private business. After
leaving the monastery, Topga had established a trading company dealing
in wristwatches and other goods. Tenzin does not try to claim that
Topga's private business activities took place at the expense of
the Karmapa or his administration. Nor was Topga selling harmful
or illegal goods such as weapons or drugs. For these reasons, I
fail to see how Topga's business affairs are relevant to the Karmapa
controversy. The only motive I can see for relating them is to impugn
whether Topga's importing and exporting were illegal or not depends
on relevant law, which in this case, is that of the two nations
concerned, India and Bhutan. Like many landlocked countries, Bhutan
concluded a treaty with its neighbor, India, to allow goods to be
transported overland in India on their way in or out of Bhutan without
being subject to Indian customs.
claims that Topga was stopped by Indian customs inspectors in Calcutta
with watches and other gold items but that he wasn't charged with
a crime because the Bhutan royal family intervened. But in light of
the Bhutan-India overland transport treaty, since the Bhutan royal
family did intervene, saying the gold was theirs, then what is the
crime? If it's their gold, then there is nothing illegal in Topga
transporting it. The agreement between Bhutan and India means Bhutanese
can import goods of unlimited value without having to pay customs
duty to India.
in both the cases Brown mentions, the Indian government apologized
for interfering with Topga's business in violation of its treaty
with Bhutan. It never pressed charges because there were no charges
to press! It is curious to me then that Mick Brown appears to be
more offended by Topga Rinpoche's actions than the Indian government
was. Yet, if the government of India had no grounds to charge Topga,
then by definition, Topga's actions were legal.
India had no problem with Topga, then why should Mick Brown have
a problem?” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “One would almost think that perhaps
Mr. Brown himself was losing some customs duty here!”
respect that Brown shows to Tenzin Namgyal's baseless smuggling
charges shows once again how Brown acts more like a devotee than
a journalist. He has no qualms about charging Topga Rinpoche with
a crime even though the government concerned did not do so, purely
on the claims of his biased source, Tenzin Namgyal.
Brown fails to mention that a genuine gold-smuggling incident involving
another player in the Karmapa controversy did occur. And the true
smuggler was not Topga Rinpoche, but another of Brown's own trusted
sources, Tai Situ Rinpoche. This story is related in the book Siege
As we later found
out, Situ Rinpoche had flown from Hong Kong to Calcutta, carrying
25 kilograms of gold. When the customs officers discovered the
smuggled gold at the airport, Situ Rinpoche displayed his Bhutanese
diplomatic passport. He claimed the gold belonged to the Royal
Government of Bhutan; however the customs officers wanted a
more convincing explanation. Situ Rinpoche then asked to see
the Bhutanese customs officer and convinced him to believe the
phony story. He also claimed that the bag was actually his attendant's
and quickly left for Sikkim. One of his attendants was left
behind with the bag to act as guarantor. Later on, we hard the
issue was settled with Situ Rinpoche having to give up the gold.
(Siege of Karmapa , p.
Rinpoche at this time of course was indeed a businessman. It was
natural for him to conduct business affairs, to import and export
goods. Situ Rinpoche, however, has always been a monk. Yet here
and elsewhere he has been involved in business affairs that are
inappropriate for an ethical businessman, not to mention a spiritual
Claim 4: After a disagreement, Topga may have murdered Damchoe
then retails the most serious charge of all, Tenzin Namgyal's claim
that Topga Rinpoche murdered his stepfather, the Karmapa's General
Secretary Damchoe Yongdu. First, Brown describes how Topga and Damchoe
had disagreements about title deeds for two of the Karmapa's properties.
Then, he tries to implicate Topga in the death of Damchoe:
December 1982, Damchoe traveled to Bhutan, to check on the accounting
of the Karmapa’s business interests and to seek a loan from
the Bhutanese government to complete the building of KIBI in
Delhi. Traveling with him were his assistant Gompo and two other
attendants. On 10 December, Damchoe visited Topga at his home.
Gompo and the two attendants were shown into a waiting room
upstairs, while Damchoe took tea with Topga in another room.
Less than an hour later, Damchoe was dead. A doctor was summoned
who declared that the general secretary had died of a heart
attack. “There was talk,” said Tenzin Namgyal, choosing his
words carefully, “of suspicious circumstances.” It was said
that blotches could be seen on Damchoe’s body, perhaps consistent
with the use of certain poisons. (115-116)
story is filled with errors. Two main points stand out, Dronyer
Ngodrub and Dechang Nagu, speaking in their twin roles as brothers
of Damchoe Yongdu and members of the Karmapa's administration.
Tenzin talked of blotches on Damchoe's body as possible signs of
poison. But poison leaves more obvious signs than this and is generally
very easy to detect by physicians. Second, the family had the body
at home and did pujas over it for a week. During that time there
would have been plenty of opportunity to schedule an autopsy. However,
the family felt no need to do this.
knew that our brother had died of a heart attack,” said Dronyer
Ngodrub, “none of us had any suspicions that anyone had had a hand
in his death.”
this day, we are certain that our brother died of natural causes,”
said Dechang Nagu. “It is quite painful then for our family to hear
accusations made about murder. Tenzin Namgyal has hurt us deeply
with his groundless charges.”
Yongdu's two brothers tell a different version of the story of the
death of their brother. “I was in Thimphu, Bhutan assisting my brother.
It was December, and my brother was staying at a small dry goods
shop in Thimphu run by our brother-in-law, Lodro Choden,” Dechang
had made an appointment to meet the Bhutanese finance minister at
10:30 am at his office in the main government building in Thimphu.
At 8 o'clock, before setting out, Damchoe met with Topga Rinpoche
and his wife Princess Ashi Chokyi at their residence in the city.
From Topga Rinpoche's house, Damchoe left for his meeting with the
finance minister. It took about one hour for the meeting, then Damchoe
came back to the shop at lunchtime. Lodro Choden was working downstairs,
and Damchoe was in the guest room upstairs.
Lodro Choden heard a sudden loud thump on the ceiling above him.
He went upstairs to see what had happened, and Damchoe was sprawled
on the ground, collapsed. Lodro Choden ran downstairs to summon
a doctor. Within a few minutes, a local doctor arrived.
was out walking in Thimphu on the morning of his brother's death.
When he returned to his brother-in-law's house, he found the doctor
there and his brother dead. They talked, and the doctor explained
that he had done an examination of Damchoe's body, which showed
all the signs of a heart attack. This was no surprise to Dechang.
years, my brother had suffered from high blood pressure,” Dechang
says. “In New Delhi, he had been going to the Chogla clinic, and
Dr. Chogla had put him on a diet and prescribed some medicine to
bring his blood pressure down. My brother had been taking this medicine,
a red liquid, for some time. The bottle was sitting on the table
in my brother's room when he died. Lodro showed this bottle to the
Bhutanese doctor, who confirmed that it was indeed heart medicine.”
Damchoe's condition had not improved. Indeed, after a recent separation
from his wife, Damchoe was depressed and in low spirits, which had
raised Damchoe's blood pressure. Coming to Bhutan from the hot plains
of northern India had not helped his condition either. “The doctor
explained that traveling from India to the below-zero degree area
of Thimpu was very dangerous for someone who had high blood pressure
and the shock of this change had finally been too much for my brother's
am sure that my brother died of a heart attack,” Dechang explains.
“I saw his body right after he died. I talked to the doctor. There
was never any doubt for me or for anyone in our family.”
older brother Dronyer Ngodrup adds that “I saw my brother's body
a week after his death when it was brought to Rumtek for the funeral.
It was clear to me that he had died from natural causes.”
Namgyal wasn't even in Thimphu, as I was,” Dechang says. “Nor was
he part of our family. Where in the world did he get this story?”
can only think that Tenzin invented this slander as revenge against
Topga Rinpoche. Topga had fired Tenzin from Rumtek in the late eighties.
He told the whole staff there why he had sacked Tenzin—for playing
politics and spreading slander. Ever since, Tenzin has been angry
and has been looking for a chance to avenge himself on Topga.”
Calumny Against an Honorable Man
now it should be clear that all the charges against Topga Rinpoche
repeated by Mick Brown are baseless. Topga had an excellent relationship
with the late Karmapa, which he maintained and strengthened even
after he gave back his monk's robes and entered married life. Excepting
the brief period after the death of Topga's mother when the two
quarreled about who should inherit her jewels, Topga was also close
to his stepfather Damchoe Yongdu until the latter's death in 1982.
Topga clearly had no motive to murder his stepfather. Why should
Tenzin Namgyal spread suspicions when Damchoe's own family had none?
should also be clear that Tenzin is as unreliable a source as Mick
Brown's other informants. Tenzin was personally biased against Topga
and has spent the last fifteen years trying to avenge himself against
Topga for dismissing him from the Karmapa's administration.
would like to conclude by inviting readers to judge for themselves
whether Mick Brown's account of Topga Rinpoche is anything but the
bitter complaints of a disappointed man, Tenzin Namgyal? It is true
that Tenzin befriended Topga Rinpoche for many years and supported
him in his times of need. Perhaps Tenzin felt betrayed when Topga
dismissed him from his post as the Karmapa's assistant general secretary
any event, we hope that Brown's flawed account will not stain the
reputation of Topga Rinpoche, a man who deserves to be remembered
for his honesty, integrity, intelligence, and tireless devotion
to the work of the Karmapa and the spread of Dharma.