Article #8: “His Master’s Voice” Response to Brown’s Attacks on Topga Rinpoche

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By Dawa Tsering

Director, Kathmandu Office, IKKBO

This is the eighth article in a series of responses to Mick Brown’s The Dance of 17 Lives:
The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa (Bloomsbury , 2004).


Topga Rinpoche succeeded Damchoe Yongdu as general secretary of the Karmapa’s administration when Damchoe died in 1982. From that time until his own death, Topga performed his duties effectively and with the highest standard of integrity. He will be remembered by those who knew him as a man who generously devoted his considerable intelligence and energy to the service of Dharma.
The book by Mick Brown
Yet, Mick Brown attempts to make Topga Rinpoche one of the main villains in the morality tale that drives his bookThe Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa (Bloomsbury, 2004).In earlier installments of this series, my colleague Lama Karma Wangchuk has discussed how Brown used uninformed and unreliable sources like Akong Tulku and his brother Jamdrak (aka, Lama Yeshe) to make insinuations against the late 16th Karmapa and Shamar Rinpoche. Now, I would like to show how Brown uses an equally biased and uninformed source, Tenzin Namgyal, to attack one of the most faithful servants of the late Karmapa, Topga Rinpoche.

First, let us examine the credibility of Tenzin Namgyal as a source for accurate information about Topga Rinpoche. Then, we will look at the relationship of Topga Rinpoche with both Damchoe Yongdu and with the late 16th Karmapa. Finally, I will answer the four main charges that Tenzin makes against Topga that are repeated in Brown’s book.

The Credibility of Tenzin Namgyal

For years, Tenzin Namgyal served as an assistant secretary under Damchoe Yongdu and Topga Rinpoche in the late Karmapa’s administration. Tenzin worked well with Topga. He was even a vocal supporter of Topga in a couple of key disagreements with Damchoe. However, the relationship between the two soured in the late eighties.

For years, Topga and others in the Karmapa’s administration had suspected that Tenzin was taking money from the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala to provide secret intelligence on the doings of the Karmapa and his seat at Rumtek Mona stery, located in India’s nor thea stern Sikkim state. Topga suspected that Tenzin may have been on the payroll of Dharamsala as early as 1977. However, Topga would not act against Tenzin until he had conclusive evidence that his junior colleague was indeed acting as a paid spy. This evidence came only in 1989. At that time, Topga confronted Tenzin. Receiving no satisfactory reply to the charges, Topga asked for and received Tenzin’s resignation.

From this time on, Tenzin Namgyal became the implacable enemy of Topga Rinpoche. He allied himself with Situ Rinpoche and those who supported Orgyen Trinley’s Karmapa claim. He then became known as a critic of his former senior colleague and was heard often to repeat serious criticisms of Topga, to question his integrity generally and to imply that Topga had acted against the interests of the Karmapa.

Topga Rinpoche’s Relationship with Damchoe Yongdu and the 16th Karmapa

To provide background on Topga Rinpoche’s work for the late Karmapa, I spoke with the two brothers of the Karmapa’s late General Secretary Damchoe Yongdu, Ven. Dronyer Ngodrup and Dechang Nagu. Aside from being brothers of the late general secretary, these men were both core members of the Karmapa’s administration at Tsurphu Mona stery in Tibet. After the Karmapa fled to India, they remained with the Karmapa’s administration when it was reestablished at Rumtek. Dronyer Ngodrup, a senior monk, was the chief of protocol and ritual master for the Karmapa. Dechang Nagu, a layman, served as assistant general secretary of the Karmapa’s administration before Tenzin Namgyal himself was appointed to this office.

“In 1949 or 1950, my brother Damchoe Yongdu married Topga Rinpoche’s mother Yangchen, the sister of the 16th Karmapa, after she separated from her first husband,” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “They were married when Topga Rinpoche was a child of twelve or thirteen years old, at Tsurphu Mona stery.” This made Damchoe the stepfather of Topga Rinpoche.

“After the marriage, we two brothers immediately took to our new nephew and became close friends,” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “We were close to Topga’s age, and became just like brothers.”

In his teens, Topga Rinpoche showed an aptitude for study. He took diligently to his books and excelled in each subject of the traditional Tibetan Buddhist curriculum. In recognition of his learning, at age seventeen, the Karmapa awarded Topga two titles: Dorje Lopon (Vajrayana Ritual Master) in recognition of his knowledge of Buddhism; and Garchen Thripa, an administrative title that enabled Topga to act as regent over Rumtek in the Karmapa’s absence.

In 1959, the Chinese Red Army invaded Tibet and all the important lamas fled to India. Topga Rinpoche and his family joined the exodus, though his mother was weak from a long fight against cancer. This group just made it to Bhutan when Topga’s mother died. “The exhaustion of the trip must have been too much for her,” said Dronyer Ngodrup. Since Topga’s father had died several years earlier, the loss of his mother made Topga Rinpoche an orphan.

The Karmapa and his party settled in Sikkim, at Rumtek. In 1962, the widower Damchoe Yongdu married Lekshe Drolma, a daughter of Thutop Namgyal, the Land Steward at Tsurphu Monastery back in Tibet.

“Though he was already 21, Topga Rinpoche remained a beloved stepson of my brother Damchoe Yongdu,” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “However, shortly after the wedding, Topga and my brother had some misunderstandings. In this dispute, which was unclear to me and my younger brother Dechang Nagu, the Karmapa took the side of our brother Damchoe, who was a senior member of his administration and known to be a diligent worker.”

I was curious about this dispute, so I asked Shamar Rinpoche about it. He told me that though it was not widely known at the time, Topga and his stepfather argued about who should inherit the substantial collection of jewelry of Topga Rinpoche’s mother, who came from a wealthy aristocratic family. Damchoe wanted to present the jewels to his new bride. But Topga thought that he should inherit the jewels, which represented his mother’s whole estate. According to Shamar Rinpoche, Topga and Damchoe fought bitterly about these jewels, which consisted of several strands of perfect Tibetan dzi stones and rare coral beads given to Topga’s mother by her first husband, the lord of Ngolog, a small principality in eastern Tibet. In the end, Damchoe gave all the jewels to his new wife and Topga received no inheritance from his mother.

“In this dispute, the Karmapa and Topga exchanged strong words, as did Topga and our brother Damchoe,” Dronyer Ngodrub said. “Yet, my brother and I stuck by Topga. We had been his friend since he was a fatherless child just entering our family, and we stayed by his side now that he was an orphan.” Interestingly, at this time, according to Ngodrup, Assistant Secretary Tenzin Namgyal also took the side of Topga Rinpoche, publicly arguing for the merits of Topga.

Later, Topga Rinpoche and Damchoe Yongdu forgot their differences and reestablished their former affection for each other. “They worked together harmoniously in the Karmapa’s administration until Damchoe’s death in 1981,” said Dronyer Ngodrup. Meanwhile, after a brief period of unity for the first few years in India, centuries-old divisions began to resurface among the Tibetan exile community. To strengthen its position, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile began trying to establish more control over the traditionally autonomous religious orders of the Kagyu and Nyingma as well as over the noble families of eastern Tibet, who had ruled over what were essentially principalities independent of Lhasa.

These religious orders and noble families decided to unite to preserve their autonomy. In 1964, the leaders of the Kagyu and Nyingma schools got together with leaders of the principal families of eastern Tibet. They founded a group known as the Thirteen Settlements and elected the Karmapa its spiritual leader. The group held its inaugural meeting in New Delhi and the Karmapa sent Topga Rinpoche as his representative. “The Karmapa placed immense trust in Topga Rinpoche. But because Topga was still young, the Karmapa sent me along to New Delhi as a kind of chaperone,” said Dronyer Ngodrup. Topga discharged his duties at the conference entirely to the satisfaction of the Karmapa.

The next major event in his Topga’s life would be returning his monk’s vows and getting married. To discuss this, let me turn now to Tenzin Namgyal’s version as told by Mick Brown.

Tenzin’s Criticisms Retold by Brown

Mick Brown repeats four very serious criticisms of Topga, all attributed directly or indirectly to Tenzin Namgyal:

  1. Topga married a Bhutanese princess against the wishes of the late 16th Karmapa
  2. Topga had no official duties in the Karmapa’s administration and was not personally devoted to Karmapa’s affairs
  3. Topga was guilty of smuggling goods in and out of India
  4. After a disagreement, Topga may have murdered his predecessor as Karmapa’s General Secretary, Damchoe Yongdu

Let me answer these points one by one.

Claim 1: Topga married a Bhutanese princess against the wishes of the late 16th Karmapa

First, Brown talks about Topga’s marriage. He claims that according to Tenzin Namgyal, Karmapa was very angry about Topga’s giving up his robes and getting married:

Topga’s marriage incensed the Karmapa, who regarded the monastic life as the highest possible calling and took a dim view of those who gave up their robes. It is said that in the courtyard at Rumtek he smashed his nephew’s seat to smithereens, and ordered the debris to be thrown down the mountainside, proclaiming, “Let not a mote of dust rise up here again.” But in 1968, when the Karmapa traveled to Bhutan, Topga pleaded with him for forgiveness and to be given a title that would lend him some status in his new life. (113)

Brown attributes these words to Tenzin Namgyal, but these are certainly not Tenzin’s words. They seem more like the words of Akong or Situ. First, these events never happened as described, and Tenzin would not dare to create such a bold lie. Second, the phrasing and description, even in English, sound much like the overheated diction of either Situ Rinpoche or Akong Tulku.

In 1966, Topga Rinpoche met the elder sister of the King of Bhutan, Princess Ashi Chokyi in Thimphu. Topga Rinpoche was still a monk, but this was a case of love at first sight, and when the two met in New Delhi later that year, their romance was sealed. The two became engaged to be married.

But first, Topga would have to return his monk’s vows to his uncle, the Karmapa. Brown correctly reports that the Karmapa was indeed angry at Topga Rinpoche. As a monk, the Karmapa thought that a monastic life was the highest calling. And he was also sorry to lose Topga Rinpoche as Ritual Master. However, the Karmapa made his displeasure known to his nephew only in private. “It is a complete lie to say that the Karmapa showed any anger to Topga in public,” said Dronyer Ngodrup.

Instead, the administration of Rumtek set up the traditional ceremony for a monk to return his vows. Topga Rinpoche had to sponsor a puja, the Rumtek monks recited the Heart Sutra and then the Karmapa accepted Topga’s monk’s vow back from him. Monks over the centuries have participated in this ceremony to leave the monastic life. Topga became just another in this long tradition.

The Karmapa did not remain angry for long, and he did not let Topga’s marriage stand between himself and his nephew. In 1968, right after Topga’s wedding, the Karmapa visited Thimphu as a guest of the royal family of Bhutan. In May, the Karmapa met Topga and appointed him honorary general secretary of the Karmapa Labrang, allowing him to succeed to the office on the retirement or death of the current general secretary, his stepfather Damchoe Yongdu. This title was in addition to Topga’s role on the board of the Karmapa Charitable Trust, established to take over the Karmapa’s affairs at his death. At the same time, recognizing that this ceremony took place in the royal palace in Thimphu, the King of Bhutan gave Topga a title of his own, honorary provincial governor, complete with the red robe and sword of that office. 

“The Karmapa would not have showered so many honors on Topga if he had been angry at him for long,” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “Indeed, from this time until the Karmapa’s death, the Karmapa made many special requests of Topga, who remained his trusted nephew. The Karmapa asked Topga to sponsor many projects at Rumtek. He even regularly ordered rare birds from Topga’s trading company, which Topga provided free of charge.”

Claim 2: Topga had no official duties in the Karmapa’s administration and was not personally devoted to the Karmapa’s affairs.

Brown continues, that though the Karmapa had appointed Topga as an assistant general secretary to Damchoe Yongdu,

“His Holiness never assigned [Topga] any official work,” Tenzin Namgyal told me, “and Topga never once showed up at Rumtek before the Karmapa’s death. But after the Karmapa died, then he started to show up. Topga was really a businessman.”

Though Topga had become a businessman, as befitted a layman in the prime of life, the rest of this is incorrect. Topga Rinpoche visited Rumtek several times after the wedding and showed his support for Karmapa’s activity through frequent acts of generosity to Rumtek until the Karmapa’s death in 1981.

In 1971, the Karmapa took an entourage of more than 300 monks to Bhutan to perform the 45-day summer retreat at to the building site for Tashi Choling, a monastery that was to be built for Karmapa at Bumthang. Topga Rinpoche and his wife Ashi Chokyi provided food and lodging for the 16th Karmapa, all 300 monks and even the Karmapa’s administrative staff. Tenzin Namgyal was one of those who put on weight after enjoying the tasty Bhutanese dishes provided by Topga Rinpoche and his royal wife.

Topga Rinpoche frequently visited the Karmapa. After his marriage, and during the entire period that Brown refers to, Topga was a great benefactor of Rumtek and made many gifts to the monastery out of his own funds.

  • He purchased a complete antique set of the Kangyur and Tenjur—respectively, the Buddhist canon and traditional commentaries in Tibetan language—which he donated to Rumtek’s library. Such a purchase would have been far beyond the means of Rumtek’s budget at this time.
  • He collected key texts of the 7 th Karmapa, had them printed and distributed free of charge to monks at Rumtek.
  • He offered several hundred yellow robes to the monastic community.
  • Also entirely from his own funds and at considerable effort and expense, Topga Rinpoche visited Japan at the request of the Karmapa to acquire rare birds for the Karmapa’s aviary.
  • And the biggest job of all, Topga Rinpoche sponsored construction of a retreat center at Rumtek, which was completed in 1976. He also covered the cost of room and board for all retreatants during the period 1976 to 1990. In today’s dollars, the cost of the construction alone would have been about US $500,000.

Topga did all these things out of his deep devotion to the late Karmapa. He also frequently visited the Karmapa at Rumtek. When the Karmapa started to get sick in 1979, Topga also traveled extensively to assist him, meeting the Karmapa not only in Rumtek but also in Hong Kong, Chicago, and in half a dozen other places.

Claim 3: Topga was guilty of smuggling goods in and out of India

Brown then relates Tenzin’s charge that Topga was a smuggler:

 What sort of business [was Topga involved in]? I asked.

Tenzin Namgyal laughed. “Smuggling!”

This aspect of Topga’s activities was well known to the Indian authorities. In March 1980, customs at Calcutta intercepted seven packages belonging to Topga containing silver worth 400,000 rupees (around £50,000) which he was attempting to smuggle out of the country into Hong Kong. But following the intervention of the Bhutanese royal family, the silver was returned to Topga and no charges were brought.

Brown then relates a story about a shipment of wristwatches of Topga’s that was stopped by Indian authorities but again released after intervention by the royal family of Bhutan. 

This is a strange story for a couple reasons, whether it comes entirely from Tenzin Namgyal or whether Brown added some of his own embellishments. 

First, his trading activities were Topga Rinpoche’s private business. After leaving the monastery, Topga had established a trading company dealing in wristwatches and other goods. Tenzin does not try to claim that Topga’s private business activities took place at the expense of the Karmapa or his administration. Nor was Topga selling harmful or illegal goods such as weapons or drugs. For these reasons, I fail to see how Topga’s business affairs are relevant to the Karmapa controversy. The only motive I can see for relating them is to impugn Topga’s character.

Second, whether Topga’s importing and exporting were illegal or not depends on relevant law, which in this case, is that of the two nations concerned, India and Bhutan. Like many landlocked countries, Bhutan concluded a treaty with its neighbor, India, to allow goods to be transported overland in India on their way in or out of Bhutan without being subject to Indian customs.

Brown claims that Topga was stopped by Indian customs inspectors in Calcutta with watches and other gold items but that he wasn’t charged with a crime because the Bhutan royal family intervened. But in light of the Bhutan-India overland transport treaty, since the Bhutan royal family did intervene, saying the gold was theirs, then what is the crime? If it’s their gold, then there is nothing illegal in Topga transporting it. The agreement between Bhutan and India means Bhutanese can import goods of unlimited value without having to pay customs duty to India.

Indeed, in both the cases Brown mentions, the Indian government apologized for interfering with Topga’s business in violation of its treaty with Bhutan. It never pressed charges because there were no charges to press! It is curious to me then that Mick Brown appears to be more offended by Topga Rinpoche’s actions than the Indian government was. Yet, if the government of India had no grounds to charge Topga, then by definition, Topga’s actions were legal.

“If India had no problem with Topga, then why should Mick Brown have a problem?” Dronyer Ngodrup said. “One would almost think that perhaps Mr. Brown himself was losing some customs duty here!”

The respect that Brown shows to Tenzin Namgyal’s baseless smuggling charges shows once again how Brown acts more like a devotee than a journalist. He has no qualms about charging Topga Rinpoche with a crime even though the government concerned did not do so, purely on the claims of his biased source, Tenzin Namgyal.

Yet, Brown fails to mention that a genuine gold-smuggling incident involving another player in the Karmapa controversy did occur. And the true smuggler was not Topga Rinpoche, but another of Brown’s own trusted sources, Tai Situ Rinpoche. This story is related in the book Siege of Karmapa:

As we later found out, Situ Rinpoche had flown from Hong Kong to Calcutta, carrying 25 kilograms of gold. When the customs officers discovered the smuggled gold at the airport, Situ Rinpoche displayed his Bhutanese diplomatic passport. He claimed the gold belonged to the Royal Government of Bhutan; however the customs officers wanted a more convincing explanation. Situ Rinpoche then asked to see the Bhutanese customs officer and convinced him to believe the phony story. He also claimed that the bag was actually his attendant’s and quickly left for Sikkim. One of his attendants was left behind with the bag to act as guarantor. Later on, we hard the issue was settled with Situ Rinpoche having to give up the gold. (Siege of Karmapa , p. 44)

Topga Rinpoche at this time of course was indeed a businessman. It was natural for him to conduct business affairs, to import and export goods. Situ Rinpoche, however, has always been a monk. Yet here and elsewhere he has been involved in business affairs that are inappropriate for an ethical businessman, not to mention a spiritual leader. 

Claim 4: After a disagreement, Topga may have murdered Damchoe Yongdu

Brown then retails the most serious charge of all, Tenzin Namgyal’s claim that Topga Rinpoche murdered his stepfather, the Karmapa’s General Secretary Damchoe Yongdu. First, Brown describes how Topga and Damchoe had disagreements about title deeds for two of the Karmapa’s properties. Then, he tries to implicate Topga in the death of Damchoe: 

In December 1982, Damchoe traveled to Bhutan, to check on the accounting of the Karmapa’s business interests and to seek a loan from the Bhutanese government to complete the building of KIBI in Delhi. Traveling with him were his assistant Gompo and two other attendants. On 10 December, Damchoe visited Topga at his home. Gompo and the two attendants were shown into a waiting room upstairs, while Damchoe took tea with Topga in another room. Less than an hour later, Damchoe was dead. A doctor was summoned who declared that the general secretary had died of a heart attack. “There was talk,” said Tenzin Namgyal, choosing his words carefully, “of suspicious circumstances.” It was said that blotches could be seen on Damchoe’s body, perhaps consistent with the use of certain poisons. (115-116)

This story is filled with errors. Two main points stand out, Dronyer Ngodrub and Dechang Nagu, speaking in their twin roles as brothers of Damchoe Yongdu and members of the Karmapa’s administration.

First, Tenzin talked of blotches on Damchoe’s body as possible signs of poison. But poison leaves more obvious signs than this and is generally very easy to detect by physicians. Second, the family had the body at home and did pujas over it for a week. During that time there would have been plenty of opportunity to schedule an autopsy. However, the family felt no need to do this.

“We knew that our brother had died of a heart attack,” said Dronyer Ngodrub, “none of us had any suspicions that anyone had had a hand in his death.”

“To this day, we are certain that our brother died of natural causes,” said Dechang Nagu. “It is quite painful then for our family to hear accusations made about murder. Tenzin Namgyal has hurt us deeply with his groundless charges.”

Damchoe Yongdu’s two brothers tell a different version of the story of the death of their brother. “I was in Thimphu, Bhutan assisting my brother. It was December, and my brother was staying at a small dry goods shop in Thimphu run by our brother-in-law, Lodro Choden,” Dechang Nagu explains.

Damchoe had made an appointment to meet the Bhutanese finance minister at 10:30 am at his office in the main government building in Thimphu. At 8 o’clock, before setting out, Damchoe met with Topga Rinpoche and his wife Princess Ashi Chokyi at their residence in the city. From Topga Rinpoche’s house, Damchoe left for his meeting with the finance minister. It took about one hour for the meeting, then Damchoe came back to the shop at lunchtime. Lodro Choden was working downstairs, and Damchoe was in the guest room upstairs. 

Suddenly, Lodro Choden heard a sudden loud thump on the ceiling above him. He went upstairs to see what had happened, and Damchoe was sprawled on the ground, collapsed. Lodro Choden ran downstairs to summon a doctor. Within a few minutes, a local doctor arrived. Dechang was out walking in Thimphu on the morning of his brother’s death. When he returned to his brother-in-law’s house, he found the doctor there and his brother dead. They talked, and the doctor explained that he had done an examination of Damchoe’s body, which showed all the signs of a heart attack. This was no surprise to Dechang.

“For years, my brother had suffered from high blood pressure,” Dechang says. “In New Delhi, he had been going to the Chogla clinic, and Dr. Chogla had put him on a diet and prescribed some medicine to bring his blood pressure down. My brother had been taking this medicine, a red liquid, for some time. The bottle was sitting on the table in my brother’s room when he died. Lodro showed this bottle to the Bhutanese doctor, who confirmed that it was indeed heart medicine.”

But Damchoe’s condition had not improved. Indeed, after a recent separation from his wife, Damchoe was depressed and in low spirits, which had raised Damchoe’s blood pressure. Coming to Bhutan from the hot plains of northern India had not helped his condition either. “The doctor explained that traveling from India to the below-zero degree area of Thimpu was very dangerous for someone who had high blood pressure and the shock of this change had finally been too much for my brother’s heart.”

“I am sure that my brother died of a heart attack,” Dechang explains. “I saw his body right after he died. I talked to the doctor. There was never any doubt for me or for anyone in our family.”

Damchoe’s older brother Dronyer Ngodrup adds that “I saw my brother’s body a week after his death when it was brought to Rumtek for the funeral. It was clear to me that he had died from natural causes.”

“Tenzin Namgyal wasn’t even in Thimphu, as I was,” Dechang says. “Nor was he part of our family. Where in the world did he get this story?”

“I can only think that Tenzin invented this slander as revenge against Topga Rinpoche. Topga had fired Tenzin from Rumtek in the late eighties. He told the whole staff there why he had sacked Tenzin—for playing politics and spreading slander. Ever since, Tenzin has been angry and has been looking for a chance to avenge himself on Topga.”

Baseless Calumny Against an Honorable Man

By now it should be clear that all the charges against Topga Rinpoche repeated by Mick Brown are baseless. Topga had an excellent relationship with the late Karmapa, which he maintained and strengthened even after he gave back his monk’s robes and entered married life. Excepting the brief period after the death of Topga’s mother when the two quarreled about who should inherit her jewels, Topga was also close to his stepfather Damchoe Yongdu until the latter’s death in 1982. Topga clearly had no motive to murder his stepfather. Why should Tenzin Namgyal spread suspicions when Damchoe’s own family had none?

It should also be clear that Tenzin is as unreliable a source as Mick Brown’s other informants. Tenzin was personally biased against Topga and has spent the last fifteen years trying to avenge himself against Topga for dismissing him from the Karmapa’s administration.

I would like to conclude by inviting readers to judge for themselves whether Mick Brown’s account of Topga Rinpoche is anything but the bitter complaints of a disappointed man, Tenzin Namgyal? It is true that Tenzin befriended Topga Rinpoche for many years and supported him in his times of need. Perhaps Tenzin felt betrayed when Topga dismissed him from his post as the Karmapa’s assistant general secretary in 1989?

In any event, we hope that Brown’s flawed account will not stain the reputation of Topga Rinpoche, a man who deserves to be remembered for his honesty, integrity, intelligence, and tireless devotion to the work of the Karmapa and the spread of Dharma.

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