Open Letter from Khenpo Chödrag Tenphel to Mick Brown

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An Open Letter to Mick Brown

Author of The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa (London: Bloomsbury, 2004).

Dear Mr. Brown:

I am writing you about the pending inventory of valuables at Rumtek Monastery. I came to Rumtek in 1961 at the age of 10 years and was guided in meditation and studies by the late 16th Gyalwa Karmapa himself who appointed me to the office of Khenpo of the Monastery in 1976. I also, from an early age, acted as the personal secretary and assistant to His Holiness the Karmapa. In 1981 I was appointed as Head-Khenpo of the Monastery, again by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa himself on the 16th of February that year.

Thus I’m acquainted with the sacred objects of Rumtek Monastery and I, because of my education as a Khenpo, know the history of these objects, and, the late 16th Karmapa, on many occasions, told me of those objects and their history. A court-ordered inventory took place at Rumtek in the recent past. The Karmapa Trust nominated Dronyer Thubten Gyaltsen and myself as its representatives to attend the inventory on behalf of the Trust.

But, the lawyers of defendants 1, 2 and 3 objected and the court, instead, ordered that one or more Trustees of the Karmapa Charitable Trust should attend. There were three Trustees living at this time, the late Sikkim Kazi T. S. Gyaltsen, the late Mr. Gyan Jyoti of Nepal and H.H. Shamar Rinpoche. Shamarpa was our preferred choice, because he was a high lama, had lived at Rumtek many years and was well acquainted with the relics there, including the Black Crown. The other two gentlemen were both elderly laymen. In fact, H.H. Shamar Rinpoche is the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyü Lineage and he would therefore be the highest authority, even so, the Sikkim authorities claimed he couldn’t be granted a permit for Sikkim , but did not provide a reason.

Also the Joint Action Committee of Sikkim, an organization of laypeople without any authority to interfere in Rumtek’s affairs, but which has nonetheless tried for years to sabotage the inventory, requested the Court to stop the inventory. We find these events suspicious, we find no proper reason to stop the inventory as a detailed and proper inventory would contribute to establish what the facts are. I and the other attendants of the late 16th Karmapa worry that some sacred objects are missing, in particular, we worry about the Vajra Crown as the individuals who have a a close connection with defendants 1 and 2 have made false claims as to the sacred objects, in particular the Vajra Crown.

Situ Rinpoche’s secretary and long term special associate Ms. Lea Terhune wrote in her 2003 book Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation , published by Wisdom Publications, on page 260: “There were two crowns at Tsurphu when the Sixteenth Karmapa fled in 1959, the original dating from the fourteenth century and a copy made a hundred years or so ago. Only one crown was brought out of Tibet by the Karmapa and is now at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim . The other is presumed to have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.”

The claim that, in Tsurphu Monastery, there was a copy of the Vajra-Crown made approximately a hundred years ago is a blatant lie. If such a copy of the Vajra-Crown had been made it would have been recorded in the historical records. Nowhere can one find a record of that. Furthermore, H.H. the late 16th Karmapa did never mention this during the 21 years I spent with him. Also, the now 81 year old Dronyer Tubten Gyaltsen, who was in charge of storing the Crown and the other sacred objects also knows that. I therefore suggest that you approach him regarding this.

Your book, Mr. Brown, also makes similar claims, on page 34 of The Dance of 17 Lives:


It was Yung-Lo who also bestowed on the Karmapa a material version of the ethereal Vajra Crown, or Black Hat. Since the 1st Karmapa attained enlightenment and had – according to legend – been presented with the Vajra Crown, it has remained inseparable from all his successive incarnations as a reflection of their transcendental wisdom. The crown was said to be invisible to all but the most pure in spirit. But through the devoted eyes of Yung-Lo it could clearly be seen. The Emperor commanded that a material symbol of this celestial vision be made, to benefit all beings, and presented Dezhin Shegpa with a crown woven in black brocade and studded with precious jewels. In the seventeenth century, the 10th Karmapa’s pupil, the Emperor of Jang, presented him with a replica of the Black Hat that had been presented by Yung-Lo. From then on, the original Crown was kept at Tsurphu, and the Karmapa carried the replica when he travelled. It is not known which crown the 16th Karmapa brought with him when he fled from Tibet into Sikkim in 1959.

You falsely claim that the King of Jang had a replica made of the black Vajra Crown. This is not at all the case, the King of Jang had a blue crown made studded with a few smaller jewels not at all with the large and many jewels the Black Crown is studded with. Also, according to the late 16th Karmapa and his old attendants Dronyer Thubten Gyaltsen, Lekshe Drayan and others, who are still at Rumtek, the shape of the Jang Crown is a bit different. It is curious to note that Mick Brown’s version of a second crown is very different from Lea Terhune’s version of a second crown. Again, one can conclude, with certainty, that these claims are therefore false.

I would suggest that you look into the authentic historical records, as, in my view, the facts must be established on that basis. I will list some of those records: “The Blue Annals” by Shonnu Pal, “A Feast for Scholars” by Pawo Tsugla Trengwa, “The Garland of Moon Water Crystal” by the 8th Situpa, Chokyi Jungney and Belo Tsewany Kunkhyab, “The Wishfullfilling Tree” by Ngedon Tengye, “The Biography of the 15th Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje” by Beru Khyentse and other historical records. All these writings establish that the Vajra-Crown was offered to the 5th Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa, by the Chinese Emperor Yung Lo who saw that Crown adorning the head of the Karmapa. But as it isn’t visible to those who lack spiritual achievement, the Emperor decided to have a replica made so that others would also have the good fortune to see the Crown. That replica made by Emperor Yung Lo was brought to India from Tsurphu Monastery in 1959. And, the late 16th Karmapa, on many occasions, said that this is the Crown offered by Emperor Yung Lo. For example in 1975, the late 16th Karmapa gave the late Queen Mother of Bhutan H.R.H. Puntsog Chodron, the opportunity to pay her respect to the sacred objects brought from Tibet . These objects were kept in 8 boxes painted with the 8 auspicious emblems, each box is approximately 75 cm high and 55 cm wide, and, 3 metal boxes, each approximately 1,85 m high, 1 m wide. Then there’s the Mahakala-thangka wrapped in cloth, the self-portrait by the Indian master Atisha and some other sacred objects.

It is common knowledge that the objects from Tibet were kept in those boxes. I was present on that occasion where H.H. the 16th Karmapa showed each of the sacred objects to Her Royal Highness. He told her when showing the Vajra-Crown that it was the Crown offered to his predecessor the 5th Karmapa Deshin Shegpa by the Emperor Yunglo. On many other occasions where I was present the late 16th Karmapa said the same when he showed the Crown to Indian and Western devotees. I also have, when asked about the Vajra-Crown and its history, given the same information.

Furthermore, in 1980, the then tutor of H.H. the Dalai Lama, the late Trijang Rinpoche, visited Rumtek. He also asked to see the sacred objects and H.H. the late Karmapa showed them to him and said the same about the Vajra-Crown.

With respect to the false claims, made in various publications as I’ve indicated above, this worries me and others from Rumtek Monastery. The spreading of such rumours, in my view, may indicate that the Vajra Crown and other sacred objects have been stolen from the Monastery. I suggest, Mr. Brown, that you take a second look at this situation, to correct the misinformation in your book.

Yours Sincerely

Khenpo Chödrag Tenphel