reasons that I cannot fathom, recent books
on the Karmapa controversy by two supporters of Tai Situ Rinpoche,
Lea Terhune and Mick Brown, employ the term “Heart Sons” to
describe four Karma Kagyu lamas—Shamar Rinpoche, Situ Rinpoche,
Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche.
is confusing to me because this term did not come down to us from
the ancient tradition of the Karma Kagyu; nor was it given by the
late 16 th Gyalwa Karmapa. Instead, the term “Heart Sons” was coined
in 1997 by my cousin Topga Rinpoche, the general secretary of the
late Karmapa. And what's more, Rinpoche used the term ironically,
as part of a detailed critique of the behavior of Situ and Gyaltsab
Rinpoche was a gifted writer and learned scholar blessed with a
strong sense of right and wrong and a keen wit to match. In the
finest Tibetan literary tradition, Rinpoche was not afraid to target
his sharp pen and his irony at behavior that failed to meet his
high moral standards.
was in this spirit that Topga Rinpoche sarcastically applied the
term “heart sons” to Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches. It is curious
to me that Brown and Terhune would employ a term invented specifically
to criticize their lamas. And it is confusing that these writers
do not cite the source of this term, nor explain the context in
which Topga Rinpoche first used it.
understand why this term is so confusing to me, let me explain how
Topga Rinpoche came to use it.
Official Lineage of Spiritual Fathers and Sons
the establishment of the Dalai Lamas as the secular rulers of Tibet
, the country was governed by a dynasty of kings sympathetic to
the Karma Kagyu order, the Tsangpa Dynasty. In the 17 th century
King Tsangpa Dhesid wanted to institutionalize the spiritual primacy
of the Karma Kagyu within the nation. Thus, he designated the ninth
Karmapa “Dharma King” of Tibet , and he also established an official,
government-sanctioned hierarchy for the highest lamas of the Karma
language adopted from the Indian tradition of spiritual fathers
and sons started by Marpa and Milarepa, this hierarchy was known
as the Kagyu Gyalwa Yab Say or “Victorious Lineage of
Spiritual Fathers and Sons.” In this system, the main reincarnate
lamas were placed in an order of authority from the highest on down.
The top lamas were listed as follows:
Karmapa Black Hat
Karmapa Red Hat (Shamarpa)
Tai Situ Rinpoche
hierarchy parallels the system in the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa order,
the Jey Yab Say Sum with Tsongkhapa at the top and Khedrup
Je and Gyalstab Je below, and the Gyalwa Yab Say Nampa Nyi with
the Dalai Lama at the top and the Panchen Lama just below.
Kagyu Gyalwa Yab Say became a kind of ruling cabinet for
the Karma Kagyu School and established a lasting order of the highest
lamas with only one exception. Informally within the Kagyu tradition,
because Gyaltsab was involved in a long-standing legal dispute with
Gyalwa Karmapa himself that distanced Gyaltsab and Karmapa, Situ
moved up to take Gyaltsab's place in the #3 position.
ban that the Lhasa government placed on Shamarpa reincarnations
from the late eighteenth century until 1956 had no effect on the
hierarchy; the number #2 position remained officially empty. Neither
Gyalwa Karmapa nor the government of Tibet transferred Shamarpa's
rank to any other lama.
by the Tibetan government of the Tsangpa kings and then reconfirmed
by the government of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Kagyu Gyalwa
Yab Say was adopted by the Karma Kagyu School itself and remained
in force into the twentieth century. Then, the 16 th Gyalwa Karmapa
made his own temporary ranking of Karma Kagyu lamas that paralleled
the Gyalwa Yab Say . These two rankings provided the only
terms used to describe the hierarchy of our lamas until the death
of the 16th Karmapa in 1981.
Brief Life of “The Four Regents”
the late Karmapa's death, the Karma Kagyu School found itself in
the extraordinary situation of running its affairs in the interregnum
between Karmapas while in exile from Tibet . Recognizing the potential
for disorder in this situation, the late Karmapa's general secretary,
Damchoe Yongdu, created a group of four “regents” consisting of
myself, Situ, Gyaltsab and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoches. With some
reservation, I naively accepted this situation to preserve harmony
within our school. At the time I didn't realize that I myself had
no authority to change the Kagyu system. And sure enough, within
a few years it became clear that this arrangement created more problems
than it solved. In particular, the secretaries of each rinpoche's
administration began throwing their weight around based on their
lama being a “regent,” which created resentment among the administrations
of other lamas.
I dissolved the regent group in 1984, with the agreement of the
other three rinpoches. We all agreed that the term “Four Regents”
should cease to be used in any official communications of the Karma
Kagyu in general or the late Karmapa's seat at Rumtek Mona stery
in particular. Accordingly, the Rumtek office reverted to the original
terminology of the Kagyu Gyalwa Yab Say .
Rinpoche's Coup de Plume
1992 the unfortunate conflict within our school began. The sad history
of those years is known to us all, though we may disagree about
who was in the right. In the heat of this discord, in 1997, Topga
Rinpoche published a book criticizing the behavior of Situ and Gyaltsab
Rinpoches. Topga criticized the two rinpoches in particular for
attacking Rumtek Mona stery and forging their Karmapa prediction
letter. Written in Tibetan language and titled Tam Na Tsog Kuntok
Gi Rimo , the book detailed how the two rinpoches collaborated
with corrupt politicians “to loot the ancient relics of the Karmapas.”
Rinpoche's book became famous among Himalayan scholars for its indignant
critique supported by impeccable logic, impressive evidence and
Topga Rinpoche's signature wit and sarcasm.
his book, Topga Rinpoche borrowed a term used by other schools of
Tibetan Buddhism, thug sey . Translated as “heart sons,”
this term was used historically to describe various groups of close
disciples of famous Nyingma and Drukpa Kagyu lamas, much as Christians
use the term “apostles” to refer to the closest followers of Jesus.
Topga used the term thug sey ironically to refer to the
four lamas who were supposed to have had a special connection and
loyalty to the late Karmapa. Arguing that Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches
had used their position of trust to betray the institution of the
Karmapas, Topga gave the term Heart Sons an ironic tinge. Perhaps
this would have been like calling Judas “the good disciple.” Topga
Rinpoche certainly meant to say that Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches
had acted like Judases towards their guru the 16 th Gyalwa Karmapa.
to say, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches were not pleased by Topga Rinpoche's
book, or by its popularity among Himalayan Buddhists. But this did
not stop Situ Rinpoche from removing the term Heart Sons from the
ironic context in which Topga Rinpoche had used it and applying
it to himself and the other lamas as a kind of badge of honor.
Precious Gift of Our Unbroken Lineage
my part, I prefer the traditional terms of our lineage. I was never
comfortable with the term “regent” and was glad to see it go. And
I am confused that Situ Rinpoche should want to call himself a “Heart
Son,” given the origin of this term.
any event, I would like to request here that Situ Rinpoche not include
me in this newfangled designation.
am satisfied with the nomenclature of our tradition and with the
hierarchy laid out in the Kagyu Gyalwa Yab Say . This was
good enough for seven Karmapas and all other Kagyu lamas since the
17th century, and it is good enough for me. Neither of the late
general secretaries of Gyalwa Karmapa, Damchoe Yongdu or Topga Rinpoche,
had the authority to change this structure. The terms “Four Regents”
and “Four Heart Sons” have no history in our lineage; they appear
in no documents generated by the administration of the late 16th
Karmapa; and I can't see that these terms add any value. Indeed,
these terms were circulated only after the death of the late Karmapa,
in a time of disorder, by people who wanted to take advantage of
the temporary lack of authority to enhance their own political positions.
these reasons, I would like to ask all followers of our lineage
as well as journalists and others interested in Tibetan Buddhism
to abandon the terms “regents” and “Heart Sons.” If writers need
to refer to the work that the four rinpoches did together during
the period from 1981 to 1992 to locate the reincarnation of the
late Gyalwa Karmapa, then they may refer to us as the Karmapa Search
Committee of Four Rinpoches.
beauty and power of Buddhism comes from its preservation of the
original teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni unchanged over eons. Of
course, the cultural forms through which the precious Dharma is
expressed can and should change to suit different times and places.
But we would be ill-served to change the heart essence of the teachings.
And for Tibetans, the way we have preserved the heart essence of
Buddhism has been through the unbroken, authentic lineage of Mahamudra.
Marpa the Translator transmitted this lineage to his student Jetsun
Milarepa who in turn transmitted it to Gampopa. Gampopa's students
then handed down the teachings through successive Karma Kagyu lineage-holders
to the present day, from teacher to student, from spiritual father
to spiritual son.
unbroken lineage is our unique gift to the world, a world that needs
authentic spiritual wisdom today more than ever before. It is the
duty of all Karma Kagyu practitioners to preserve this precious
lineage so that future generations may enjoy the blessings of genuine,
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