In 1981, the revered 16th Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, passed
away. His death set in motion a process to identify his reincarnated successor that originated
900 years ago with the 1st Karmapa who was the first Tibetan Buddhist master ever to
Since the early 1990's, the identification of the 17th Karmapa has been mired in controversy,
causing a schism in the controversy, causing a schism in the Karma Kagyu sect. Two competing
factions within the sect have recognized different candidates.
To help sort out the competing claims, Sylvia Wong believes that an unbiased voice can be
found in the past- namely, in the prophetic words of previous Karmapas. Not only does she
offer the Karmapas' words, but using a combination of accurate translations, sound
interpretation, proper historical research, and investigative reporting, she also marshals new
evidence and analysis to show that those predictions have come true in our time.
In addition, Wong corrects recent publications' linguistic and historical errors that
contribute to the Karmapa controversy. She believes that an accurate account of Karma Kagyu
history ought to be of equal importance to both 17th Karmapas and their followers. With the
help of respected translators, Wong presents for the first time in English, many key Tibetan
writings that reveal the relevant Karma Kagyu history.
In part one of her ground breaking study, Wong presents the true voices of the 5th and 16th
Karmapas through their writings, namely, their prophecies that forewarned of treachery not
unlike the present schism in the Karma Kagyu. Wong also examines the predictions of Guru
Rinpoche found in scripts from Tibet made available only in early 2008.
To reveal the true meanings of all these prophecies, an in-depth analysis be Geshe Dawa
Gyaltsen, a Gelugpa scholar, accompanies each prophecy.
Part two refutes mistruths about Tibetan history that several recent publications have spread.
If left uncorrected, they can damage the reputation of Karma Kagyu- a risk forewarned in the
Part three presents the first-person account by the present Shamarpa, about events just prior
to the 16th Karmapa's passing and until his own recognition of the 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje.
It reveals the divisive forces that have undermined the 16th Karmapa's administration.
Part four, the concluding section examiners the key figures and their master plan in the
takeover to Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, on August 2, 1993. Today, neither of the two 17th
Karmapas can set foot in Rumtek, as their predecessor foresaw.
Sylvia Wong, a long-time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, is an editor of Buddhist Teachings
Published in Buddhist magazines and websites. She lives in Toronto, Canada.
One of four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu lineage is a vessel of the
Buddha's teachings passed down through unbroken transmissions between master and disciple over
the course of 900 years. The Indian Buddhist yogis Tilopa and Naropa's disciple, Marpa, who
brought Buddhism to Tibet. Later, Marpa's disciple Milarepa became one of the most famous
enlightened yogis of Tibet.
From Milarepa, the dharma transmissions passed to Gampopa. Gampopa's primary disciples then
branched out into four main Kagyu, which was founded by the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. Since
Dusum Khyenpa's time, the Karma Kagyu School has continued through 16 successive Karmapas up
to the present day.
The other three main Kagyu schools have ceased to exist; but their teachings still continue
under eight Kagyu subsets (Drigung, Taklung, Trophu, Drugpa, Yamzang, Shugseb, Martsang, and
Yerpa,) and within the Karma Kagyu.
In 1959, in response to impending communist invasion of Tibet, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung
Rigpe Dorje left Tsurphu Monastery, his seat monastery in East Tibet. He traveled with his
followers to Sikkim, a northern state in Indian. There, he built Rumtek Monastery, which he
established as his new seat outside out Tibet.
In 1961, the 16th Karmapa established a legal administrative body, or "labrang", to oversee
his monasteries and assets, called the Karmapa Charitable Trust (or KCT). The labrang system
is a time-honoured tradition in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Every spiritual teacher has
the right to manage his affairs through his own autonomous administration. The 16th Karmapa
personally appointed trustees to the KCT, whose duties would include managing Karmapa's legacy
in the interregnum after his death. They would also decide whom to accept as the next Karmapa.
In November of 1981, the 16th Karmapa passed away. The personally appointed trustees of the
Karmapa Charitable Trust then took on the legal responsibility of managing his legacy and
waited for their teacher's return as the 17th Karmapa.
The historical authentication of Karmapa
Historically, the reincarnation of a deceased spiritual master (or tulku) is confirmed by
another qualified spiritual master of the same school. In the case of the Karma Kagyu, this
master is usually the highest living lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu, of another Kagyu
School (such as Drugpa Kagyu, for instance). As stated, Karmapa' own labrang must also accept
the new Karmapa before he can be officially enthroned.
The first master of reincarnate continuously, life after life, while keeping the same
identity, was the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193). Before he died, the 1st Karmapa left
brief oral instructions with three separated disciples concerning his next reincarnation.
After his death, this first ever tulku declared himself to be the reincarnation of Dusum
Khyenpa. The circumstances of his arrival corresponded to the oral instructions previously
given. In addition, the 1st Karmapa's teacher Pomdrakpa saw him in a vision, and subsequently
confirmed that Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa had indeed returned as Karma Pakshi, the 2nd Karmapa
When the 2nd Karmapa was approaching the end of his life, he predicted that he would come back
in his next life in eastern Tibet. The 3rd Karmapa, Rangjang Dorje, declared himself the
reincarnation of Karma Pakshi. Thus, a precedent was established for a Karmapa reincarnate to
declare himself at a very young age, as did the 5th Karmap Dezhin Shegpa and many later
Karmapas. Like the 1st Karmapa, Karma Pakshi did not leave any written description of his next
rebirth, although later Karmapas would occasionally do so. However, whether instructions about
his next rebirth were given orally or in writing, each reincarnated Karmapa would reveal his
identity through special abilities.
Understandably, the process of recognizing a tulka cab be a controversial one. An example of
this is the case of the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje.
After the death of the 15th Karmapa, a very powerful Gelugpa government minister named
Lungshawa wanted to have his son recognized as the reincarnation of Karmapa. Lungshawa was
dedicated to modernizing Tibet. He thought that if his son were a Karmapa, it would facilitate
his plans for Tibet's north-western and eastern regions, whose inhabitantswere followers of
the Karma Kagyu School. H.H. the 13th Dalai Lama subsequently persuaded to confirm Lungshawa's
son as the 16th Karmapa. However, the 15th Karmapa's labrang (the Tsurphu Monastery
administration) did not accept this recognition, stating that "the son of this aristocrat is
not the reincarnation of the 15th Gyalwa Karmapa Khachup Dorje."
The conflict was resolved by a prediction letter, which the 15th Karmapa had given to his
close disciple, Jampal Tsultrim. For reasons unknown, Jampal had kept the letter secret at
first, but finally revealed its contents. This led to the recognition of the authentic 16th
Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje.
It is not unheard of for more than one candidate to be rocognized by different spiritual
masters as a potential tulku. In these cases, the late master's labrang decides which
candidate to accept as the genuine reincarnation. This decision is usually based on written or
oral evidence left behind by the master, and/or special abilities exhibited by the candidate,
as described in the abovementioned case.
But controversies are not always settled so easily. In 1992, two Karma Kagyu lamas- Situ and
Gyaltsap Rinpoches- recognized Karmapa Ogyen Trinely as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa.
In support of their declaration, Situ Rinpoche produced a letter allegedly written by the 16th
Karmapa, which contained information about his successor.
However, two other Rinpoches- the current Shamarpa and Jamgon Rinpoche-expressed their doubts
about the authenticity of the prediction letter. Shamarpa asked that the letter be
scientifically dated, but Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches refused to do so.
Instead, Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches obtained the cooperation of the Chinese government to
have their candidate enthroned as the new Karmapa. This constituted China's first ever
appointment of a tulka. They also persuaded the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, His
Holiness the Dalai Lama, to confirm their candidate as the 17th Karmapa.
Shamarpa objected to this course of action, stating that any government involvement in
ascertaining the identity of the 17th Karmapa would establish a dangerous new precedent. In
his view, it would essentially mean that the power to recognize a Karmapa would henceforth be
in the hands of politicians. Once that power had fallen into the political arena, the
authenticity of the karma Kagyu lineage would be lost.
Shamarpa objected to this course of action, stating that any governmental involvement in
ascertaining the identity of the 17th Karmapa would establish a dangerous new precedent. In
his view, it would essentially mean that the power to recognize a Karmapa would henceforth be
in the hands of pliticians. Once that power had fallen into the political arena, the
authenticity of the Karma Kagyu lineage would be lost.
To date, Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches have not explained why they invited the Chinese
government to intervene in a religious matter. Shamarpa does not accept the two rinpoches'
candidate to this day. As well, Karmapa's administration, the KCT, also refused to accept the
candidate because physical evidence in Situ's prediction letter called its authenticity into
question. The letterhead, the handwriting, the spelling and the many grammatical mistakes in
the letter were out of line with the appearance of other writings by the 16th Karmapa.
In August of 1993, with the help of local Sikkimese state politicians and the Sikkim state
police, Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches staged a violent takeover of Rumtek Monastery, the seat of
Karmapa. Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches people have occupied Rumtek ever since. Due to this
incident, a legal suit has been brought against Gyaltsap Rinpoche and the Sikkim state
officials so that Rumtek could be returned to its rightful administration. (Sit Rinpoche was
not named in the suit because he had been banned from entering India when it was filed.)
In 2004, the courts in India ruled that only the Karmapa Charitable Trust- not the two
rinpoches- has the legal authority to manage Karmapa's estate, which includes Rumtek
Monastery. Evidence given in court also proved that Sikkim State officials and police accepted
bribes in exchange for their participation in the takeover. The court case continues today.
All the trustees of the Karmapa Charitable Trust as well as the monks who were residents of
Rumtek Monastery stand behind Shamarpa. In their view, the two rinpoches are in the wrong. In
March of 1994, Shamar Rinpoche recognized and enthroned the 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje
with the acceptance of the Karmapa Charitable Trust and of the Rumtek administration.
Today, there are two 17th Karmapas.
Part One: On Prophecies and Visions
To help sort out the competing claims in the current controversy, I believe that "an unbiased
voice" can be found in the past- namely, the prophetic words of previous Karmapas.
Karmapa's followers believe he is a great bodhisattva, whose mind is synonymous with clarity
and wisdom. Many also believe that Karmapa knew such a controversy would arise. Indeed, as the
respected Gelugpa scholar Geshe Dawa Gyaltsen points out in Part One, the 5th Karmapa Dezhin
Shegpa (1384-1415) and the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924-1981) both prophesied a
rift within the Karma Kagyu.
Here are the words of the 16th Karmapa:
"In its heart, the duck relied on the lake
But the shameless lake brought ice, its partner, and became sealed."
At first glance, these words may seem like lines form a poem and nothing more. However,
Geshe's insight into the passages paints a different picture. Could the 16th Karmapa be
referring here to a betrayal that would keep him away from his home base at Rumtek Monastery?
Another powerful message is found in a prophecy of the 5th Karmapa. He predicted that someone
with the name "natha" would come close to obliterating the Karma Kagyu lineage and doctrines.
A great deal of confusion has arisen from the translation of the word "natha". Situ Rinpoche's
supporters have suggested it means "nephew" in order to implicate Shamarpa, who is the nephew
of the 16th Karmapa. Tibetan scholars usually write in Sanskrit and/or Tibetan; "natha" does
not mean nephew in either of these languages- nor, indeed, in any language I have come across.
In fact, "natha" is a Sanskrit word whose Tibetan equivalent is "gon". As it happens, part of
Situ Rinpoche's full Tibetan name is Jam-gon. A detailed explanation of this word is given at
the end of Chapter 1, which includes the definition of "natha" found in Sarat Chandra Das
Tibetan- English Dictionary.
When I began this project, I wanted to understand what the previous Karmapas had foretold. I
set out to obtain copies of the original Tibetan Books, or "pechas". I then worked together
with a group of Tibetan translators to translate them into English. It was at this time that
it came to my attention that Geshe had analyzed the Karmapa prophecies and written his
commentaries in Tibetan explaining their meaning. Geshe-la has an excellent command of
classical Tibetan; his explanations are thus based on a precise understanding of the Karmapas'
words. To say that it caught my interest would be an understatement. I am grateful to my
translators, who obtained Geshe Dawa Gyaltsen's consent to have his commentaries translated
and edited for this book. It is important that the Karmapas' words be understood in the proper
context in order to put the current controversy in perspective.
As I was finalizing the writing of this book in March of 2008, two books of predictions by
Guru Rinpoche were submitted to Karmapa's library in Kalimpong. In one of them is a
prediction, which is by far the most convincing prophecy, as it actually names three
individuals who are currently embroiled in the 17th Karmapa's dispute. A precise translation
of this prediction is presented in Chapter 4 along with Geshe Dawa Gyaltsen's explanation on
its meaning, as well as his interpretation on the identities of the three individuals.
Part Two: Clarification of History
Not ling ago, I worked for the current Shamarpa on his translation of a biography of the 10th
Karmapa (17th century) in English. Shamarpa's study was filled with Tibetan pechas. He
compiled extensive passages from at least six or seven Tibetan classics and translated them
for this comprehensive biography. As a result of my work on this project, I came to be
familiar with Tibetan history during the lifetime of the 6th Shamarpa.
At that time, I was reading Lea Terhune's book, Karmapa: the Politics of Reincarnation, in
which she claims that the 6th and the 10th Shamarpas were responsible for the political
turmoil in Tibet's past. Her claims contradict bona fide Tibetan sources such as those I found
in Shamarpa's study. Unfortunately, those Tibetan sources are not available in English. As to
Terhune's source that is published in English (in an abridged form) – W.D. Shakabpa's Tibet: A
Political History- Terhune actually misquotes it. Scholars an Tibetan historians may have
access to the repositories of history; but what of the non-Tibetan reader? Even those who
question Terhune's claims would be unable to investigate further without the aid of a
In Terhune's book, the integrity and history of the Karma Kagyu is compromised. This follows
from the 5th Karmapa's predictions. Terhune is Situ Rinpoche's disciple, and her book appears
very much to be a campaign to discredit the institution of Shamarpa. At the same time, it
gives greater credence to Situ Rinpoche's claims to authority in enthroning the 17th Karmapa.
Her dubious scholarship is therefore relevant not only because it validates the 5th Karmapa's
predictions, but also because it sheds further light on the controversy itself.
I would like to make available the facts of history that were at my fingertips. As Artemus
Ward once wrote, "It ain't so much the things that we don't know that gets us into trouble.
It's the things that we do know that just ain't so." I asked Shamar Rinpoche for permission to
quote excerpts from his translations of the Tibetan classics, in order to present exactly what
"just ain't so."
In part Two, I present several examples from Terhune's book that are at odds with recorded
history, including her misquote of Shakabpa. I also provide translated excerpts from relevant
Tibetan sources as a point of comparison. I hope that the examples I have selected will put
Terhune's account in perspective.
Part Three: Karmapa's Administration of Risk
In part three, the present Shamarpa recounts the divisive forces that undermined the authority
of Karmapa's administration. He wishes to have his account published while the witnesses are
still alive. He explains how the regency of the four rinpoches was first formed, and how it
was dissolved. He also describes the actions of people who control the KCT. He discloses what
was discussed in the closed meetings of the four rinpoches on the search committee for the
17th Karmapa, including how Situ Rinpoche first presented his prediction letter. Finally,
Shamarpa tells of his last meeting with Jamgon Rinpoche just days before the latter was
tragically killed in a car crash. These accounts, backed up for the most part by live
witnesses, are a window on what happened in Rumtek after the 16th Karmapa passed away, and
before Situ Rinpoche's candidate was enthroned as the 17th Karmapa in Tibet, China.
Shamarpa' accounts expose the designs on Karmapa's administration which in effect threatened
the autonomy of Karmapa's home base- his seat monastery and administration. They were perhaps
the precursors to a later partnership "with ice" that would freeze up the duck's home as
forewarned by the 16th Karmapa.
In Karmapa: the Politics of Reincarnation, Lea Terhune claims that Topga Rinpoche sold the
Tashi Choling Monastery to pay his own debts. The facts do not support her claims, however,
In Chapter 26, Shamarpa explains why Tashi Choling had to be sold back to Bhutan; his account
is fully backed by live witnesses, copies of the Karmapa Charitable Trust's documents, as
well as by letters from the Government of Bhutan.
Part Four: The 17th Karmapa Controversy
Part four presents accounts that are relevant to the current controversy of the two 17th
Karmapas. They describe the backgrounds of key partners of Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches
(including Akong Tulku and Thrangu Rinpoche) according to the people who lied in Rumtek and
who were close to the 16th Karmapa. The accounts also describe how the actions of Situ
Rinpoche and his partners collectively led to the takeover of the seat monastery of Karmapa in
August of 1993.
It was in 1992 that Situ Rinpoche Produced a controversial prediction letter claimed to have
been written by the 16th Karmapa, giving details concerning his next rebirth. Situ Rinpoche
used it to justify his candidate as the 17th Karmapa. I have learned that Topga Rinpoche, the
late General Secretary of the Karmapa Charitable Trust, had written a sharp critique is now
well known within Tibetan academia. In Chapter 28, I present the first ever English
translation of that critique. As well, I present a word-for-word translation of the prediction
letter itself, which meticulously follows correct Tibetan grammar. I invite the reader to
compare it against the interpretation offered by Situ Rinpoche's disciple, Michele Martin.
In this writings, Topga Rinpoche once referred to the three rinpoches (Situ, Gyaltsap, and
Jamgon) as "heart sons." It was meant as a sarcastic comment. In Chapter 29, Shamarpa explains
that the term "heart sons" actually has no relevance or significance in the Karma Kagyu
tradition. He asks that the term not be used within the Karma Kagyu as it gives the wrong
connotation, which might confuse the public.
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