Rebuttal of TIME Magazine Article “Battle of the Future Buddhas”

Posted on Posted in Arguments

Rebuttal of May 2, 1994 TIME Magazine Article “Battle of the Future Buddhas”
Written by David Van BiemaReported by Patrick E. Cole/Los Angeles and Jefferson Penberthy/New DelhiKhenpo Chodrag Rinpoche, Chief Abbot, and the Junior AbbotsKarma Shri Nalanda Institute, Rumtek Monastery, and Karmapa International Buddhist Institute, New Dehli

This rebuttal responds to the many misleading and inaccurate statements as well as biases contained in theTime magazine article written by David van Biema and reported by Patrick E. Cole in Los Angeles and Jefferson Penberthy in New Delhi. [A copy of the article is attached.] Although not provided with this rebuttal, documentation refuting and correcting the errors in the 11 statements quoted below is readily available.

1/ The prize is a crown, about eight inches high, said to be woven from the hair of holy women.

The lead to the article trivializes a very serious and solemn religious tradition – the recognition of a reincarnated spiritual leader of one of Tibetan Buddhism’s four lineages. This opening sentence and the following inaccurate statement about the assets of the Karma Kagyu make it seem as if the controversy over the recognition of two different Karmapas is a matter of materialistic greed. Perhaps to the outside world, or to Tai Situ Rinpoche and his supporters, this crown and the assets are the “prize.” We, the abbots or teachers at the Shri Nalanda Institute at the Rumtek Monastery and the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi, are concerned about the sanctity of our religious tradition and the identification of the true Karmapa. Our spiritual leader, Karmapa Thaye Dorje – our “prize,” so to speak – is genuine for several reasons:
a) His recognition was spiritually and officially based on the findings of His Holiness Shamar Rinpoche;
b) The traditional divinations and findings were totally authentic to our lineage;
c) His recognition was not biased or politically motivated. For example, his family was not personally known to any of the spiritual leaders within the Kagyu lineage.

2/ Assets worth $1.2 billion . . .

This figure is still, to our knowledge, totally unfounded and false. All of Karmapa’s assets and accounts are controlled by the Karmapa Charitable Trust.

The trustees have never had assets or properties totalling this amount. Since the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981, every transaction has been strictly accounted for and recorded. We were all very surprised by this purported figure, as it certainly could not have come from anyone with accurate knowledge of the Trust. Whatever the value of the assets of the Karmapa, they cannot be sold for anyone’s personal gain. Further, many of the assets are of a spiritual nature, sacred to our lineage, and with absolutely no tangible or cash value. Therefore, this dollar figure that Situ, his supporters and many Westerners dream about is totally irrelevant. Despite this, we suggest that the reporters should have checked this alleged figure with the Trust members since they are the actual legal trustees of Karmapa. Unfortunately, long after this article was printed, this fabricated figure still remains in the minds of many people.

3/ The oldest of Tibetan Buddhism’s four allied schools, Karma Kagyu was the first to adopt reincarnation as a means of choosing its leader called the Karmapa. The process is not always peaceful; over the centuries, warring factions have sponsored duelling candidates, igniting bloody battles.

First, while it is true that the Kagyu lineage was the first to recognise the incarnation of its spiritual leader, it is not the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism. The chronological order of the four lineages is Nyingmapa, Sakyapa, Kagyupa, and Gelugpa. Second, had the reporters consulted history books, they would have seen that within the Karma Kagyu School, this alleged fighting definitely did not happen. What they didn’t research, or perhaps omitted to say, is the fact that over the years the Gelugpa School, headed by the Dalai Lama, has forcefully interfered with the Kagyupa School. People today assume that the Dalai Lama has always exercised spiritual authority over the other Tibetan Buddhist lineages. This is definitely not the case.

The spiritual leadership of Tibet has changed over the centuries depending on the country’s political ruler. Different rulers favoured different schools. But this does not mean that the leader of a school in political favour had actual spiritual control over the other lineages. On the contrary, each lineage has continued to carry out its own duties and obligations under the guidance of its own supreme spiritual leader. One only needs to look at historical documents to see that the bloody battles mentioned in the article were actually instigated by the Gelugpa administration. In his bid to gain spiritual power, the 5th Dalai Lama invited the Mongolian warlord, Gushri Khan, to Tibet. With his troops, Gushri Khan succeeded in destroying the Tsangpa Dynasty which was the ruling government at the time. He slew Tsangpa, the political ruler, and proceeded to attack many of the Karma Kagyu monasteries, turning them into Gelugpa monasteries by force.

This was not a spiritual revolution as some would like to think, but a horrific bloody battle fought by the Mongolians on behalf of the Gelugpas. Gushri Khan then made the Dalai Lama the ruler of Tibet, and the 5th Dalai Lama officially acceded to the throne. To ensure they did not loose power again, his ministers passed extremely harsh laws against the Karma Kagyu School. Their imposition of religious restrictions caused conflicts, which in one instance resulted in the 10th Karmapa having to miraculously flee for his life from Tibet. The TIME article makes it sound as if the process of choosing an incarnate is regularly a violent occurrence within the Karma Kagyu School. This is completely false and quite damaging to the Kagyupa lineage. We can only assume that the reporters were referring to the events surrounding the 5th Dalai Lama’s takeover. They did not do their homework and misrepresented the facts by weaving Tibet’s historical and political events into the spiritual story. Perhaps this made the story more intriguing for readers; however it certainly has nothing to do with the history of the Karma Kagyu lineage or the recognition of Karmapa.

4/ Finally, a regent named Tai Situ had a brainstorm. For 13 years, he had worn a prayer amulet given to him by the late leader, which he had never opened. Now, he says, “it suddenly struck me, the message could be here!” And lo, it was; and conveniently specific too …

In its facetious tone describing Tai Situ’s discovery of the letter and poem from the 16th Karmapa, the article is absolutely correct. The discovery was, indeed, too good to be true. This plus internal textual inconsistencies and differing stains on the document and envelope immediately made the nephew of the late Karmapa, Kunzig Shamar, suspicious of the document’s authenticity. Regrettably, the reporters omitted to explain why Shamar Rinpoche thought it was a forgery. Apart from the fact that the letter had been spoiled somehow, resulting in the writing and signature being smudged, the envelope containing the letter appeared to be less damaged. In addition, the handwriting, in particular, looked suspicious to Shamar Rinpoche.

This is why he demanded that before any recognition of the Karmapa was announced, the letter’s authenticity should be tested by forensic methods. This is something that Situ Rinpoche totally has refused to do up to this very time. The TIME reporters failed to mention one critical verse in the poem that seriously casts doubt on the document. This verse stated the Tibetan year when the Karmapa was supposed to be born. The translation of the year mentioned is Earth-Ox, which occurs every 60 years according to the Tibetan calendar. The 16th Karmapa passed away in 1981. When the dates in the letter were worked out in accordance with the Tibetan calendar, it showed that the 17th Karmapa either should have been born in 1949 or would not be born in until 2009. One year of course was 32 years before the 16th Karmapa passed away, and the other was 28 years after he passed away. The 16th Karmapa would have never made such an obvious mistake in his prediction letter. Hence the authenticity of the letter is extremely doubtful. The controversy surrounding the letter is one of the main causes of the split within the Karma Kagyu lineage. Since the appearance of the dubious letter, other issues have come to light. But overall, had the letter been tested when first produced by Tai Situ, the entire controversy swirling today could have been avoided.

5/ The joyous news was faxed to the Dalai Lama, who affirmed the choice with his own prophetic dreams.

For a comprehensive explanation of how misleading this grossly simplified statement is, a brief account of the events that transpired in the recognition of Urgyen Trinley is necessary. These are organised as follows:

a) How the information was given to the Dalai Lama and his first response;

b) the Chinese Government’s involvement;

c) the Dalai Lama’s second statement;

d) the prophetic dream and affirmation; and,

e) the recognition of a Karma Kagyu incarnate.

a) Transmission of news to Dalai Lama and his initial response On the 6th of June, 1992, when the funeral pujas for Kongtrul Rinpoche were being held, Situ Rinpoche and his friend Gyaltsab Rinpoche suddenly disappeared from Rumtek monastery. In fact, they rushed to Dharamsala to tell the Dalai Lama their “joyous news.” The Dalai Lama however, was not there at the time, as he was attending a meeting in Rio de Janeiro . Hence, Situ Rinpoche had to be content with calling him on the telephone. He told him over the phone that he had found the authentic instructions of Karmapa and had found a boy in East Tibet. After speaking with Situ Rinpoche, the private office of the Dalai Lama issued a statement on the Dalai Lama’s behalf on the 9th of June, 1992. It is here where the TIME journalists were highly misleading and inaccurate. What they neglected to report is the Dalai Lama’s actual statement. He did not affirm Urgyen Trinley as the Karmapa. He said that if the selected boy were suitable for the incarnation and only if all the lineage leaders, and everybody within the Karma Kagyu School inside and outside of Tibet agreed, then he would support the decision. Far from having this support, at that time Situ Rinpoche had not even informed Shamar Rinpoche about the boy. Nor had he tried to contact Shamar Rinpoche or even locate him. Yet he informed the Dalai Lama that everybody was in agreement. The Dalai Lama then issued his first official statement.

b) Chinese government’s involvement On the 25th of June, 1992, the Chinese government issued a statement confirming that it would now officially recognise Urgyen Trinley as the next Karmapa. Even before this, in late May they had sent eight land cruisers to Eastern Tibet to invite Urgyen Trinley and his family to Tsurphu monastery, the historic seat of the Karmapa in Tibet. To fully understand the implications of this timing, we must go back to a meeting on March 19, 1992, when Situ Rinpoche first showed Shamar Rinpoche, Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche the dubious prediction letter. Because of Shamar Rinpoche’s misgivings about the authenticity of the letter, the four Rinpoche’s agreed that no announcement would be made for eight months, during which time Kongtrul Rinpoche would travel to Tibet to search for the boy. Sadly, on April 26, 1992, before this trip could take place, he died in an automobile accident. Shortly thereafter, his 49-day funeral puja began. Because of the funeral, no other suitable person was nominated at this time to take Kongtrul Rinpoche’s place in the search for the boy. How then was he found in less than one month, and who found him? How could the Chinese government invite him and his family to Tsurphu in late May? It is clear to us that even before the so-called “prediction letter” was shown to the Rinpoches, Situ Rinpoche had made a secret agreement with the Chinese government about the identity of the child. In fact, as it has been subsequently discovered, Situ Rinpoche had already found Urgyen Trinley during his stay in Eastern Tibet in the summer of 1991. Thus, this whole process was obviously politically motivated.

c) Dalai Lama’s second response A few days after the Chinese government’s announcement, the Dalai Lama issued a second statement regarding the reincarnation of the Karmapa. It was based on a letter presented to him by Situ Rinpoche. In his statement the Dalai Lama said that the boy whose parents are Dondrup and Lolaga is acceptable as the Karmapa in accordance with the prediction letter. This is certainly not affirming an incarnate of the Dalai Lama’s own choice. What he did in actual fact was to agree with a decision that somebody else had already made.

d) Dalai Lama’s prophetic dream and affirmation In his prophetic dream, the Dalai Lama did not say that Urgyen Trinley was the correct boy. All he said was that he (the Dalai Lama) was walking alone in a remote valley where two rivers flowed. He then heard sounds that the Karmapa was there. The reporter made it sound as if this dream specifically affirmed Situ Rinpoche’s choice. In fact, the dream also supports Karmapa Thaye Dorje. Although this valley could be any number of places in Tibet, it describes the exact area where the original home of Thaye Dorje’s parent is located. It is in a remote valley where two famous rivers flow. His parents returned from Lhasa to live there for a short period, the very time when the Dalai Lama had his dream. The Dalai Lama’s dream certainly does not affirm a specific incarnate. The recognition of an incarnate is an intricate process involving different methods depending on each particular lineage. A basic way of explaining just one aspect of this process is that someone spiritually recognises an incarnate from profound meditation or an analysis of objects formally owned by the previous incarnate. From there, additional information is researched, and various tests are submitted before any confirmation is made. The Dalai Lama’s dream was clearly only a guide, since it did not contain definite details, nor did it indicate that the boy Situ Rinpoche had selected was in fact the Karmapa.

e) Recognition of a Karma Kagyu incarnate The recognition process of Karmapa is solely the responsibility of the spiritual leaders within the Karma Kagyu Lineage. From the time of the 2nd Karmapa to the 16th, this process has never been given to any other lineage, institution or government. It is also against the Karma Kagyu tradition to rely on Tibetan oracles. The TIME reporters made it sound as if it was the Dalai Lama’s right to affirm any reincarnation choice. They assumed, along with many people, that the Dalai Lama has the final say over the Karma Kagyu Lineage as well as other schools. With all respect to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, this is definitely not the case. As previously mentioned, all the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism have their own supreme spiritual leaders, and their own methods of finding and verifying incarnations. This information is clearly recorded in hundreds of documents and books. Also, one has to wonder why, if the letter was authentic, Situ Rinpoche felt it necessary to seek the unprecedented approval and backing of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.

6/ But there were other, darker omens. A 15th century Black Hat prediction warned of a time of troubles between Karmapas nos. 16 and 17; and that too came to pass. The nephew of the late leader, Regent Kunzig Shamar, had long jousted for power with his colleagues.

Shamar Rinpoche has never “jousted for power.” As supported in many lineage documents over the centuries, Shamarpa has always been second spiritually to the Karmapa. This is common knowledge, and therefore, he has never needed to fight for this recognition. Obviously, the TIME reporters did not see through the self-serving misinformation given by their sources.

7/ At a meeting in Rumtek to resolve the matter, he (meaning Shamar Rinpoche) arrived accompanied by a squadron of Indian guards in military array. Several people were injured in the ensuring riot.

This statement misrepresents the situation and implies that a meeting was organized to resolve the matter. This is completely untrue. A secret meeting may have been organized by Situ Rinpoche; however, one was definitely not organized by Shamar Rinpoche or the legitimate monks of Rumtek Monastery. Once again we have to explain the real situation and events as they happened. At this particular time, we abbots together with many monks were performing the 49-day funeral pujas for Kongtrul Rinpoche. Situ Rinpoche was also at the monastery to participate in the pujas. Accompanying him were approximately 100 solidly built young “monks” who were also supposedly there to participate in the rituals. From the beginning, we were very disturbed by their presence, as these “guests” virtually took over the monastery. They also behaved in an aggressive and disrespectful manner towards our staff and us. During the puja proceedings, many lay people also arrived at the monastery. We did not think anything of this at the time, as we were busy concentrating on the pujas and assumed they were there to show their respect to Jamgon Kongtrul. However, these people also began to act in an aggressive manner towards us, just like the newly arrived monks. Consequently, there was a very bad atmosphere around the monastery, and all of the legitimate monks were worried and uneasy. It was at this point that Situ Rinpoche and his friend Gyaltsab Rinpoche suddenly disappeared from Rumtek (see point 5a above). We then heard that Shamar Rinpoche had arrived back in Sikkim, and we knew that he would come to participate in the pujas. Due to the disharmony at the monastery, we informed Shamar Rinpoche about the situation and advised him not to come. We felt that it was not safe. On the 12th of June, 1992, while the puja rituals were still in progress, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches arrived back at the monastery accompanied by the Sikkimese police. Surprisingly, Situ interrupted the puja and called everybody to the courtyard in front of the monastery. By the time we arrived, most of the monks and people who had been invited to the monastery by Situ Rinpoche were already in the courtyard. Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches then made separate announcements. These were to the effect that the Karmapa had been found and that the Dalai Lama was able to confirm the action taken regarding the finding of the reincarnation. The June 9th, 1992 letter from the Dalai Lama office was also read, but obviously misrepresented. We did not know until later that (as is shown above in point 5a above) the Dalai Lama’s actual statement had included his stipulation about unanimous agreement. During one of these speeches, Shamar Rinpoche arrived. He had not been informed by Situ Rinpoche about the meeting. One of our monks had taken the initiative to call him when the meeting started, and he came to officially oppose Situ Rinpoche’s announcement. Which brings us to the “squadron” of Indian guards that accompanied Shamar Rinpoche. The Indian government had insisted on appointing 8 to 10 military escorts for him, due to his high spiritual and diplomatic position. This is quite normal for someone of his status. The TIME reporters, however, made it sound as if a large number of guards had gone to the monastery with Shamar Rinpoche so that he could impose his will forcefully. No mention was made of the Sikkimese police who accompanied Situ Rinpoche to the monastery. Thus, here again the reporters seemed to listen to only one side of the story.Unfortunately, as tensions were already strained, a small outbreak arose. Unknown to us, many of Situ’s “monks” and supporters had come to the meeting with wooden sticks. When Shamar Rinpoche arrived at the monastery, some of these people tried to physically attack him. Due to the presence of his security guards, the fighting was minimal and caused no injuries. It is here that we question the naiveté of the TIME journalists. One only has to use common sense to realise that the Indian military are the protectors of the Sikkimese state, which of course is part of India. The Indian government would never have placed an escort in a situation where—on the behalf of Shamar Rinpoche—they would have to attack people they are committed to support. If there were any other reasons for Shamar Rinpoche to have military escort, then the reporters should have contacted the Indian government for further clarification.

8/ In September 1992 Ugen Thinley was officially enthroned as the 17th Karmapa in Tibet’s Tsurphu Monastery. But in Delhi in March a defiant Shamar unveiled his own choice for the job.

This is statement is correct insofar as it goes. The reporters, however, glossed over a critical fact, namely that the official enthronement was totally orchestrated by the Chinese government. Its motives were purely political, not spiritual. The reasons for Shamar Rinpoche being “defiant” have already been addressed in point 5 above.

9/ His welcoming ceremony for the new contender, however, turned into a melee, and the boy spent the next few weeks under the guard of 300 monks . . .

A TIME reporter, who was actually there that day, failed to mention the busloads of Situ Rinpoche’s militant people who turned up to display their displeasure at our welcoming ceremony for Karmapa Thaye Dorje. Among them once again were many solid looking young men dressed in monk’s robes. It was actually these people who instigated an attack on the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute (KIBI). Hundreds of stones were thrown and windows smashed by this violent “Buddhist group” in an attempt to break inside. Some of our students and people who had come to the welcoming ceremony were injured. We have videotapes proving that it was the busloads of Situ’s group who turned the ceremony into a “melee.” The reporters had been invited by Tai Situ’s secretary, Lea Terhune, to come along with this group to cover the day’s events and witnessed their violent attack firsthand. During the “melee,” one of the students from our Institute managed to close the main gates but was badly injured in the process by Situ’s group. Blood from his head splattered onto the reporter’s shirt. Later, when the situation had cooled down, hospitality was offered to this reporter, and he was invited into the Institute. We even washed his shirt! Being true to his profession, he then requested an interview.Why didn’t the reporters mention these facts and the true reason why the “new contender” had to spend the next few weeks under guard? A photo in TIME magazine showing a picture of Tai Situ’s hostile “Buddhist group” attacking and injuring the people at the monastery surely would have been sensational and sold more magazines. Again, we can only conclude the article was biased in favour of Situ Rinpoche.It is noteworthy to add something here about the American correspondent, Lea Terhune, who invited the reporters to the Institute on this day. Originally in 1983 she was employed as the Secretary for the construction of KIBI. During her employment she made slanderous and false allegations against the administration of the Institute and was requested to leave later in 1983. She was later employed by Situ Rinpoche as his secretary. Since her forced departure from KIBI, she has relentlessly worked to destroy Shamar Rinpoche’s reputation. While we can speculate by her actions that she is totally devoted to Situ Rinpoche, we also assume that as a source for reporters covering the Karmapa controversy, her information must certainly be questionable.

10/ . . . and 400 combat-ready Europeans from a militant Buddhist School run by a Danish ex-boxer.

The “combat-ready Europeans” were in fact ordinary people from around the world who came to Delhi to welcome the authentically appointed Karmapa, Thaye Dorje. Many were actually students studying Buddhist philosophy at the Institute. They never dreamed they would ever have to protect themselves and the Institute on this day. The allegation that they were from a “militant Buddhist School” is a complete lie. Under no circumstances were they trained in any aggressive or militant way to support our cause.The “Danish ex-boxer” obviously refers to Ole Nydahl who has spent 25 years travelling the world teaching Buddhism. Why did the TIME reporters refer to him by the occupation of his youth? After he gave up boxing, he became an English language teacher and then a Buddhist.

Apart from lending credence to the false “militant” accusation, what was the point of the reporters mentioning an ex-boxer? The choice of words was highly manipulative.As previously mentioned, the fighting was instigated by Situ Rinpoche’s people. Stones and other objects were thrown by them, damaging property and injuring people at the Institute. Staff from the Institute retaliated by sending empty coke cans and objects back at them. Had the TIME journalists been less biased, they would have reported that it was the foreign students who actually stopped the fighting between the Institute’s staff and Situ’s group. They physically held our staff back while the Indian police managed to subdue Situ Rinpoche’s supporters and keep them outside the gate.

The Hindustan Times, among other sources, has photographic evidence to support this. Overall, the reporters had little understanding of the situation and of Buddhism. Their “militant school” statement was slanderous. In the past, monks of various religious traditions have had to learn how to defend themselves from attacks. However, we can assure you that it has never been the way of the Karma Kagyu School. The reporters’ words might have been comical had they not implied that these people had undergone some sort of “Buddhist” military training. That is a complete fabrication.

11/ Members of the opposing camp like to point out that the name of the trouble-making demon behind the mayhem in the old prediction can be read as the word ‘nephew.’

While members of the opposing camp like to point out this false statement, the reporters definitely did not do their homework on this point. The prediction of the 5th Karmapa is printed from a wood block and is available in Tibetan. Nowhere in the prediction is the trouble-making demon read as “nephew.” So how did these words materialise in the TIME article? Surely the reporters could have found a Tibetan language specialist to translate this prediction and verify what they had been told. Instead, they contributed to the lie by printing it. This brings us to the end of the article but not to the end of the story. Over the years, many similar articles covering this controversy have been published, and many people have been misinformed. It is very easy for the uninformed public to be misled, and unfortunately it is also easy for distinguished magazines like TIME to mislead other publications that rely on TIME for reference.

The TIME article was based on speculation and misinformation and does not reflect the results of good research. It also omits key facts and makes erroneous statements. Its bias and errors have contributed to undermining the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu Lineage.

Prepared June 2000