Indian Supreme Court Rejects Claim of Tsurphu Labrang, Clearing the Way for the Karmapa Charitable Trust to Regain Control of Rumtek Monastery
New Delhi-July, 2004
Today, the International Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization released the text of a July 5 decision by India’s highest court concerning Rumtek Monastery, the seat of the Karmapa lamas. In the decision, the court rejected a petition by the Tsurphu Labrang seeking legal sanction of its control over the disputed Tibetan monastery in India ‘s northea stern Sikkim state.
The Tsurphu Labrang is the group set up by supporters of Karmapa contender Orgyen Trinley to promote his candidacy for the title of 17 th Karmapa, including his claim for jurisdiction over Rumtek. The group gained control of Rumtek in 1993 after removing the administration of the Karmapa Charitable Trust, which had been entrusted with the monastery’s care by the previous title-holder, the late 16 th Karmapa.
“We are very pleased with the Supreme Court decision,” said HH Shamar Rinpoche, the lineage-holder of the Karma Kagyu tradition and a board member of the Karmapa Charitable Trust. “The court has refused to endorse the claims of the Tsurphu Labrang. So the decisions of the lower courts stand, that the Karmapa Charitable Trust is the legal administrator of Rumtek.”
Rumtek, the seat of the Karmapa lamas since the 1960s, has been the subject of dispute for more than a decade.
The Supreme Court in New Delhi rejected the Tsurphu Labrang’s plea to overturn lower court decisions that denied the group authority over the Rumtek Dharma Chakra Center . This decision represents the final judgment in the long-running case over who has authority over Rumtek. The court’s disqualification of the Tsurphu Labrang is tantamount to validation of the legal claim to Rumtek of the Karmapa Charitable Trust. The Trust plans to begin proceedings soon in lower courts to regain physical control of Rumtek.
The seat of the Karmapa lamas since the 1960s, Rumtek has been the subject of dispute for more than a decade. The monastery was built by the 16 th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje after his escape from Tibet in 1959. Upon the death of the 16 th Karmapa in 1981, the Karmapa Charitable Trust assumed management of Rumtek, following the late Karmapa’s stated wishes.
The late Karmapa had intended the second-ranking Karma Kagyu lama, Shamar Rinpoche, to find and recognize Karmapa’s rebirth according to Tibetan tradition dating to the 12 th century. Shamar Rinpoche would then install this boy as the new Karmapa and transfer the responsibilities for the main seat of the Karma Kagyu Buddhist lineage to him when he would come of age.
In 1992, however, Rumtek and the Karmapa succession became the object of a bitter dispute. Before Shamar Rinpoche could announce the new Karmapa incarnation, two other high lamas, Tai Situ Rinpoche und Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, presented their own Karmapa candidate, a Tibetan nomad boy they called Orgyen Trinley Dorje. To bolster their case and breaking with Tibetan Buddhist tradition, they obtained recognition of this boy from two outside authorities, the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.
Throughout the history of Tibetan Buddhism each of the four autonomous Tibetan Buddhist schools has always been responsible for selecting its own leader. Though politically HH Dalai Lama is head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, spiritually his authority is limited to his own Gelugpa school. HH Dalai Lama has no religious authority to approve leaders of the other three schools, including the Karmapa’s Karma Kagyu lineage.
After Tai Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches presented their candidate, they made a plan to seize control of Rumtek from the administration of the Karmapa Charitable Trust. The two rinpoches obtained a promise of assistance from the Sikkim state government of NB Bhandari, who was later ousted amidst charges of widespread corruption and intimidation of political rivals. On August 2, 1993 , a group led by Tai Situ and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoches, with the help of Sikkim state police, entered Rumtek by force and evicted its administration and more than 200 resident monks. Ever since, possession of the monastery has been a key issue in the Karmapa controversy.
For the last decade, the Karmapa Trust has pursued legal means to regain control of Rumtek through the Indian courts. The verdict released today represents the third legal victory for the Trust in the Rumtek case. In 1997, after the ouster of Sikkim Chief Minister Bhandari, the Trust filed its case to regain Rumtek from a group headed by Gyaltsab Rinpoche.
“When the case was heard, it became clear that Gyaltsab’s group had no documentation to prove its stewardship of Rumtek,” said Karma Wangchuk, secretary of the IKKBO in New Delhi, “while the Karmapa Charitable Trust could produce minutes of meetings dating back to 1983 showing that it had run the monastery after the death of the 16 th Karmapa.”
Accordingly, after considerable delay caused by issues brought by the defense, in 2002 the District Court decided that Gyaltsab Rinpoche’s group had no standing as administrator of Rumtek and that the monastery was the legal property of the Karmapa Trust.
Gyaltsab Rinpoche and his secretary Tenzin Namgyal, acting for Situ Rinpoche and Orgyen Trinley, appealed this decision to the High Court of Sikkim in Gangtok. Finding no new evidence to support a challenge to the original verdict, the High Court denied the appeal on March 19, 2003 .
The Supreme Court verdict, announced July 5 at 2 pm New Delhi time, affirmed the earlier findings of the District Court and the High Court. Acting on behalf of Orgyen Trinley and the Tsurphu Labrang, the group supporting Orgyen Trinley, Tenzin Namgyal had brought this final appeal.
The recent Supreme Court decision removes competing claimants to control of the Rumtek monastery, leaving the Karmapa Charitable Trust as the sole rightful administrator of this important religious headquarters.
“We do not expect to move into Rumtek tomorrow,” Wangchuk said. “But this decision opens the way for the Karmapa Trust to ask the courts to evict the current, illegal occupants of Rumtek and conduct an inventory of the religious relics and valuables stored there. Once this inventory is completed, then Rumtek can be restored to the management of the Karmapa Trust. This will pave the way for the Karmapa Trust to hand over Rumtek to the person it designates.”
The Karmapa Charitable Trust recognizes Thaye Dorje as the 17 th Karmapa.
The IKKBO has released the full text of the Supreme Court’s decision here on this website.
About the Karmapa Lamas
The Gyalwa Karmapa, like the Dalai Lama, is one of the highest leaders of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa is the oldest line of reincarnate lamas in Tibet , and Karmapas have been reincarnating since the 12 th century. The current holder of this title, 21-year-old 17 th Karmapa Thaye Dorje, is the head of the Karma Kagyu tradition, one of four independent schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The young lama is spiritual director of more than 640 Buddhist centers in 51 countries. More information can be found online at www.karmapa.org.
About the IKKBO
The International Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization, based in New Delhi and with offices in Natural Bridge , VA , USA and Dordogne , France , is dedicated to educating the wider public on issues relating to the disagreement over the identity of the Karmapa. The IKKBO and a variety of supporting materials on the Karmapa controversy can be found online here on this site.