Novelist Tries to Wrestle with the Karmapa Controversy in Non-Fiction Format: IKKBO Says that She Should Have Stuck To Fiction

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In October, Random House released a new book on the Karmapa controversy. Written by Australian novelist and Tibet activist Gaby Naher, Wrestling the Dragon: In Search of the Boy Lama Who Defied China is the fourth book published since 2003 on the Karmapa.

Like the three preceding volumes, Naher’s book is written from a point of view sympathetic to Ogyen Trinley, the Tibetan nomad boy whose Karmapa claim is supported by both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.

Michele Martin’s Music in the Sky (Snow Lion, 2003) is the first book in this series. It is a biography of Ogyen Trinley with little treatment of the Karmapa controversy. Lea Terhune’s Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation(Wisdom, 2004) and Mick Brown’s The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa(Bloomsbury, 2004) both present detailed arguments that support the claims of Ogyen Trinley.

Naher’s book shares the sympathies of Martin, Terhune and Brown but employs an innovative format. The narrative weaves together the author’s personal impressions of two brief visits to India with short biographies of each of the Karmapas through the 16th and a retelling of the history of Tibet since the Chinese invasion in the 1950s.

“The format is the only thing new about this book,” said Lama Karma Wangchuk, the secretary of the IKKBO. “Otherwise, Naher simply repeats unfounded claims that Ogyen Trinley’s supporters have been making for years.”

When You Lose in Court, Try to Win with Publicity

Yet, the fact remains that with the release of Naher’s book, there are now four recent titles on the Karmapa that support Ogyen Trinley, and not one that supports Karmapa Thaye Dorje.

“Sympathizers of Ogyen Trinley have been doing a stunning amount of book publishing recently,” Wangchuk said. “Whether this is some kind of a trend or the result of a coordinated publicity campaign, we do not know. But in either event, frankly, we were not prepared for such a volume of public relations activity. We were conducting our business as usual, teaching Buddhism and managing the affairs of the Karmapa’s administration while searching for his successor in the traditional way. We were not planning for a fight.”

Then, in the early 1990s lamas outside of the Karmapa’s administration—Tai Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsab Rinpoche and others—launched a campaign to install Ogyen Trinley as the 17th Karmapa using methods not before seen in the history of the Karmapas.

“The campaign to install Ogyen Trinley was apparently based on a strategic plan that included fundraising, recruiting political allies and mobilizing grassroots support all in favor of Ogyen Trinley’s candidacy,” said Wangchuk. For his part, Wangchuk believes that this campaign also included a publicity effort featuring books by writers from western countries sympathetic to Ogyen Trinley.

“Whatever Naher says about Ogyen Trinley’s star-power, the Karmapa is not a celebrity like Bill Clinton or Britney Spears,” said Wangchuk. He believes that outside of the Himalayan region and India, it is unlikely that there is enough interest in the Karmapa to spontaneously generate four English-language books in the space of two years. Wangchuk surmises that this would surely require people with influence and money to actively encourage or even coordinate the efforts of different authors and publishers to put out books supporting Ogyen Trinley.

“When the controversy began, we had to react quickly to the wave of public attacks against the legitimate institutions of the Karmapas,” Wangchuk said. “Our only recourse was to tell our story on the Internet. Perhaps some of our online articles have shown more enthusiasm than professional polish. But we have learned a lot in the last couple years, and I believe that our story is now starting to be heard.”

Wangchuk is not surprised at the recent spate of books friendly to Ogyen Trinley. “His supporters must be producing so many books—either through their direct efforts, as in the case of Martin and Terhune who are long-time disciples of Ogyen Trinley, or indirectly, by encouraging outside authors such as Mick Brown and now, Gaby Naher—because they are trying to win in the court of public opinion what they have been losing in the courts of law.”

Indeed, supporters of Ogyen Trinley have not fared well in court actions in the last few years. The most important of these cases was a suit to regain possession of the monastic seat of the 16th Karmapa, Rumtek Monastery, located in India’s northeastern Sikkim state. In 1993, the state government of Sikkim, then under controversial Chief Minister N.B. Bhandari, confiscated Rumtek and handed it over to supporters of Ogyen Trinley. In 1997, the Karmapa Trust asked the courts to return Rumtek to its own management. Since then, three levels of the Indian court system have found in favor of the Karmapa Trust. In the most recent decision, on July 5, 2004, the Indian Supreme Court found that Ogyen Trinley’s supporters, known in this case as the Tsurphu Labrang, had no jurisdiction over Rumtek. The IKKBO has released the full text of the Supreme Court’s decision at

Followers of Orgyen Trinley in India have also been convicted of criminal offenses, in particular inciting violence at the enthronement ceremony of Karmapa Thaye Dorje held in 1994 in New Delhi.

“In the key case of this controversy, over the management of Rumtek, supporters of Karmapa Thaye Dorje have prevailed on three levels of the Indian court system. Now, on behalf of the Karma Kagyu school, Shamar Rinpoche is challenging in court the most strident and inaccurate of the recent Karmapa books, Lea Terhune’s Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation,” Wangchuk said. “Unfortunately, in her treatment of the controversy, Gaby Naher’s new book bears a striking resemblance to Terhune’s.”

Naher: No Passion for Investigative Reporting

“It is a serious flaw in Naher’s book that she failed to do any independent research, but naively accepted the claims of Ogyen Trinley’s supporters as already re-told by Terhune and others. Naher even cites Mick Brown extensively as a source,” said Wangchuk. “We know that Naher is a novelist and not an experienced journalist. So it is fine for her to write a star-struck tribute to the lama she compares to Keanu Reeves if all she does is talk about Ogyen Trinley. But if she wanted to write credibly about the Karmapa controversy, then should have checked her facts.”

Naher did not interview or attempt to contact with Karmapa Thaye Dorje or officials in charge of the late 16th Karmapa’s administration, including the board of the Karmapa Charitable Trust. Nor did she contact Shamar Rinpoche, the second-ranking lama in the Karma Kagyu lineage under the Karmapa himself.

“At least Mick Brown met with people from both sides of the controversy,” Wangchuk said. “This gave his book a veneer of journalistic objectivity. Unfortunately, he went on to take quotes out of context and treat uninformed and biased sources with greater respect than people who had been close to the late 16th Karmapa—people whom he personally authorized to manage his administration after his death.”

“By contrast, Naher fails even to meet the minimum standards of research for a non-fiction book on a controversial issue, which is to talk to both sides,” Wangchuk said. “Naher obviously saw no need to check her facts with those who might disagree with her own view of the controversy. We can understand that this might not occur to a novelist. However, fact-checking is crucial for a non-fiction writer. Therefore, we might suggest that in future, Naher stick to fiction.”

A Forthcoming Book with a Different Perspective

“It is said that history is written by the winners,” concluded Wangchuk. “Now it appears that the losers are trying to change history by tirelessly repeating the same gossip and innuendoes until they are accepted as true. Supporters of Karmapa Thaye Dorje can no longer allow this to occur unchallenged. We will now be as diligent in challenging misrepresentations in the press as we have been in seeking redress in courts of law.”

The IKKBO is pleased to announce that after the controversial books by Terhune, Brown and Naher, readers can look forward a forthcoming title that will present the story of the Karmapa controversy from a different perspective. This book will be thoroughly researched, will seek participation from both sides in the debate, and will present quotations and citations from the most credible third-party sources—recent legal records and Tibetan historical chronicles. This will allow readers to become truly well informed on the Karmapa issue and to judge the merits of each side’s position for themselves.

In the meantime, readers curious about the truth of the claims that Naher passes along from previous Karmapa books should see the IKKBO’s analysis of Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation by Lea Terhune and The Dance of 17 Lives: the Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa.


By the International Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization,


New Delhi