Article #7 part 2: “His Master’s Voice” Response to selected errors of fact in Mick Brown

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Article #7 part 2: “His Master’s Voice”
Response to selected errors of fact in Mick Brown s book by Lama Karma Wangchuk Secretary of the IKKBO

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

[part 1]   [ part 2]

This is the second part of our discussion of the errors of fact in Mick Brown’s book The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17 th Karmapa (Bloomsbury, 2004).
In our last installment I discussed errors through the first part of Brown’s book. Here, I complete our discussion for the purposes of this series. We will discuss Brown’s more significant errors in our forthcoming book on the Karmapa controversy.

The book by Mick Brown
“Heart Sons”Then, also on page 51, Brown uses the term “heart sons,” quoting Lama Yeshe saying that Karmapa was like the father and the four young rinpoches were like his sons:

“Karmapa gave all of them the best education; rooms for themselves and for their attendants,” remembers Lama Yeshe. “He was like a father with his sons. The four of them were like brothers.”

But in fact this was not the case. Shamar Rinpoche lived with Karmapa because he did not have his own labrang. And because Shamar Rinpoche, his elder brother Jigme Rinpoche and Topga Rinpoche were close family as well as members of Karmapa’s labrang, Karmapa did support them and act as a surrogate father.

But the other three rinpoches, Situ, Gyaltsab and Jamgon, all stayed with Karmapa only as guests during their childhood, cared for by Karmapa in his role as head of the Karma Kagyu order. Since these young boys had lost their monasteries and administrations in Tibet, they had no choice but to rely on Karmapa in this unusual situation.

To these three guest rinpoches, Karmapa simply gave the transmission of the Kagyu lineage teachings and initiations just as he did to other refugee lamas at Rumtek. To them Karmapa did not act as any kind of father-figure nor did he offer financial support. Situ, Gyaltsab and Jamgon Rinpoches were supported by their own administrations as were other guest lamas temporarily staying at Rumtek. Khenpo Chodrak Tenphel was among the other students at Rumtek at this time, was a classmate of these four rinpoches, and can verify this story.

Karmapa’s Travels for Medical Treatment

On page 76: Brown says that by 1980 it was clear that Karmapa’s health was worsening, that doctors thought he had cancer and that he flew to Singapore where part of his stomach was removed:

By 1980, however, it was clear that his health was worsening. He had lost weight, and his physicians began to suspect that he was suffering from cancer. He flew to Singapore, where a gastrectomy was preformed and part of his stomach removed. A pathology examination confirmed that he was suffering from cancer.

Here again, Brown just doesn’t have his facts straight. On November 28, 1979 the late Karmapa was in New Delhi conducting a ground-breaking ceremony for the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute. He got sick early in the morning at 2 am and his nephew Shamar Rinpoche was sleeping in the next room. Shamar heard that his uncle was vomiting and so came into assist him. It came out that Karmapa was vomiting blood and did indeed have stomach cancer, but until that night he had shown no symptoms. At 8 am the ceremony was due to start under the president of India. Though he was totally exhausted, through the power of his will, Karmapa managed to go through the ceremony very well. Afterwards, in private, he collapsed, and was taken the All-India Medical Institute in New Delhi for an immediate operation on the stomach. HH Karmapa never had any operation in Singapore.

Karmapa Showing Rumtek Relics

On page 77: everything that Brown reports here from Jamdrak/Lama Yeshe is incorrect. Brown says that Karmapa returned to Rumtek and had boxes built to store relics and especially the Vajra Crown. Then he called in the “four heart sons”—the spurious term used by supporters of Orgyen Trinley to refer to Shamar Rinpoche and three other lamas, Situ, Gyaltsab and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoches—and said told them that if they wanted to see the relics, now would be their last chance:

He returned to Rumtek, but his condition continued to worsen. Now he ordered craftsmen to construct a number of wooden and metal cases, to store the monastery’s most precious treasures, including relics which had been passed down from the ancestors of the lineage, Naropa, Tilopa, Marpa and Gampopa. Among them was the most precious relic of all – the Vajra Crown.

“He knew that he was going to die,” says Lama Yeshe. ‘He called the four heart sons and told them, ‘If you want to see the relics you must see them now.’ The treasures were placed first in wooden cabinets; in turn these were placed in cabinets made of steel. The locks were sealed with wax. The Karmapa instructed that they should not be touched by anyone, and should be opened only by his next incarnation.

This is wrong for many reasons. First, Lama Yeshe was not there to witness this supposed event, since would he have been in Woodstock, NY secluded in retreat at this time. So his account, as before, is entirely hearsay. Further, the four rinpoches Yeshe refers to were not at Rumtek either. For example, Shamar Rinpoche was also in Woodstock, though not with Lama Yeshe. Situ Rinpoche had left Rumtek seven years earlier and was settled near Kashmir, not in Rumtek.

What did happen was the Karmapa did indeed have boxes made and he did seal the relics in them and lock them. But the people he called to witness were not the absent rinpoches, but the senior officials of his administration.

After packing the relics, Karmapa locked the cases and handed the keys over to the two senior Dron Nyers, the caretakers of relics.

Lamas Assembling to be with Karmapa

On page 78 Brown says that just before his death, Karmapa flew from Hong Kong to Chicago for medical treatment:

Jamgon Kongtrul had accompanied him from Hong Kong; Tai Situ had come from England where ha had been giving teachings, and Shamar Rinpoche also flew to America to be at his side. Of the four heart sons only Gyaltsab Rinpoche was absent; the Karmapa had instructed him to remain in Rumtek, to take care of things in his absence.

There are a few mistakes here. First, Jamgon Kongtrul did not accompany Karmapa from Hong Kong, but Shamar Rinpoche and his brother Jigme Rinpoche did. They flew from Nice to Hong Kong to be with Karmapa before he ever went to Chicago. From Hong Kong, Shamar and Jigme Rinpoches flew together with Karmapa on the same flight to Chicago. The only reason we can think of for Brown to confuse Shamar Rinpoche’s travel schedule this way is to cast doubt on his devotion to the late Karmapa, and thus impugn Shamar’s character.

Brown then says that only Gyaltsab Rinpoche was left at Rumtek to take care of things at this time. But there would have been no need for this. Karmapa had an extensive administration at Rumtek with a large monk’s body under general secretary fully authorized to manage Rumtek in Karmapa’s absence and quite experienced in doing so with no help from outsider lamas like Gyaltsab. Gyaltsab’s business was managing his own labrang, not interfering in Karmapa’s affairs at Rumtek.

Then, as far as the lamas gathering to be with Karmapa before his passing, this is what happened.

Situ Rinpoche and Akong came from Europe to meet Karmapa in the hospital in Chicago, but reluctantly and only in response to entreaties from Jamgon Rinpoche saying that Karmapa was dying. Situ was originally reluctant to come because he had just visited Karmapa in Hong Kong, and once having flown back to Europe, did not want to leave the program he was about to put on in Brussels. But when Jamgon said that Karmapa was dying and that he, Jamgon, did not want to be responsible for Situ being absent at Karmapa’s death, Situ finally acquiesced and agreed to come to Chicago, but for two days only, according to Shamar Rinpoche, who overheard Jamgon talking on the phone to Situ calling from the hotel suite in which they were staying.

The Death of the Late Karmapa

All of page 80 appears to be devoted to promotional material for Akong Tulku, who Brown unaccountably refers to as Akong “Rinpoche.” There, Brown talks about the days before the death of the late Karmapa:

In these last days, a succession of senior lamas from the Kagyu order made the pilgrimage to his bedside. There was unfinished business to settle. In the years since they had been together at Samye Ling, the discord between Akong Rinpoche [ sic ] and Trungpa Rinpoche had festered. Trungpa had published a revised edition of his autobiography, Born in Tibet , in which he had talked about his disagreements with Akong at Samye Ling and made disparaging remarks about his old friend. Others had encouraged Akong Rinpoche to reply.

Now, in his last moments, Karmapa called them both to his bedside and told them there should be no more disputes between them. “He said, ‘I consider both of you as my sons,’” remembers Akong. “’Now you have to promise there are no more bad feelings between you, only friendship.’” He told Trungpa to remove the references to Akong in his book, and made Akong promise never to speak of it again. “So we both agreed. And Karmapa was very happy.”

It appears that according to Akong, that Karmapa acquired quite a large family just before his death! Well, if Akong is now adding himself and Trungpa Rinpoche to the four “heart sons” that Brown mentions whenever he can, then it appears that Karmapa now had six honorary sons. From the standpoint of Akong, this must have made quite a touching scene.

Too bad for Akong that it never happened. There are so many obvious lies here that is is difficult to know where to start. First, Karmapa never called Akong and Trungpa to his bedside. Akong was such a minor lama that Karmapa never would have been concerned about his squabbling with Trungpa in any event. He was like Trungpa’s servant.

But most importantly, Karmapa could never have said this because his cancer had spread so completely by the time he was in the Hong Kong hospital a month earlier that he had lost his ability to speak.

Then, Brown says that Karmapa sent Shamar Rinpoche to be Karmapa’s representative at the conference organized in Belgium, because he wanted Situ to be by his side. However, the conference had no connection to Karmapa, and was organized totally under Samye Ling’s jurisdiction at Situ and Akong’s initiative. As proof, this event receives no mention in the records kept at Rumtek. In fact, administrators of his labrang will testify that Karmapa didn’t even know the Brussels event was taking place.

Situ and Akong were not like family to Karmapa. But they were like family to each other. They shared a hotel suite in Chicago and seemed inseparable. Akong had even started serving as Situ’s private secretary.

Shamar Rinpoche says, of this period, “Only After Situ and Akong arrived did I realize that much political maneuvering had occurred already. I was very naïve then.”

Later, two rinpoches from the late Khamtrul Rinpoche’s monastery in Himachal Pradesh near Dharamsala, Dhodzong and Chogyal Rinpoches, arrived in Chicago to see HH Karmapa. They wanted to get a confirmation that a boy they had located was the reincarnation of their guru. Shamar informed Karmapa about this request, and Karmapa, who could not speak reliably, was able to communicate wordlessly with hand gestures and expression to confirm that the boy the rinpoches had recognized was corrrect.

Topga Rinpoche, Jamgon Rinpoche and an Indian doctor had flown with Karmapa from Sikkim to Hong Kong and thence with Shamar and Jigme Rinpoches from Hong Kong to Chicago. Dhodzong and Chogyal Rinpoches asked Shamar to request Karmapa to give instructions about his own reincarnation. If it would help, they offered to join Shamar in presenting this request to Karmapa.

Shamar Rinpoche continues:

In any case HH Karmapa could not speak much. The next day, Dr. Mitchell Levy informed everyone that HH Karmapa s condition was completely hopeless. Dr. Levy said that Karmapa would live for 12 days more at most. He suggested that if the lamas were going to ask about the reincarnation according to tradition, now was the time to do so.After hearing this portentous news, the assembled lamas held an impromptu meeting about how to talk to Karmapa about his reincarnation. In Tibetan tradition, this is very important. Along with myself, there was Situ, Jamgon, Topga, and Trungpa Rinpoches along with Lama Karma Trinley Rinpoche who had just arrived. Topga Rinpoche suggested that it would be better to ask if Your Holiness plans to live longer, then please show us some signs of your return to good health. Otherwise, now is the time to give us the time to give us the instructions where your reincarnation will be born.  He thought that was the appropriate way to talk to ensure good omens. He did not think we should say anything like now the doctor has confirmed that you will die within two weeks &  This would not be appropriate. But because we could not agree on the way to approach him, the lamas did not talk to Karmapa immediately.

That afternoon all the assembled rinpoches went to Karmapas room in a line. I led followed by Jamgon, Situ, Trungpa, Topga and several others. I was the agreed spokesman. I asked Karmapa for instructions about his next incarnation, but Karmapa was only able to speak one nearly unintelligible word and make hand gestures indicating that a monk would be coming from Rumtek. We should tell him not to. He was able to say nothing about his next reincarnation.

In the afternoon, I returned to my hotel. Situ came to talk to me. He had been begging me to go to Brussels to spend three days at the conference that he had organized for his students in Europe. Situ explained that if he himself went back for the event, since he was its organizer, he would not be able to leave until it was concluded, he would be required by contract to stay for the whole event. This would mean that he would miss the chance to return to spend time with Karmapa before his passing. But since I was not involved, Situ told me, I would be able to go, make a quick visit, and return to Karmapa s bedside in three days.

At that time, I was Situ s best friend. So I felt sorry for him and was willing to do him this favor if I could indeed return to Karmapa s bedside before his passing. So I asked Situ to do a mo (a traditional Tibetan divination) to see if the Karmapa would live beyond the three days that I would be gone to Brussels. He cast the dice, consulted his book of interpretation, and told me that his mo predicted that Karmapa would not die in my absence. Jigme, Topga and Jamgon Rinpoches were also there to witness this scene.

My weakness has always been to jump in quickly to help my friends in their time of need, even against my better judgment. So, after being reassured that I could return to Karmapa in time, I agreed to help Situ. I immediately left for Brussels for three days. This trip turned out to be for naught.

On arriving in Brussels, I discovered that in fact there would have been no difficulty for Situ himself to have come for three days and then leave. Later, Trungpa Rinpoche told my brother Jigme that Akong Tulku had developed this plan as a pretext on Situ and Akong s part to get me away from Karmapa. And as it turned out Gyalwa Karmapa did die the second evening of my unfortunate absence. This was my first experience of being betrayed by being tricked into helping a friend. It was an important experience, pushing me toward maturity.


Why did Situ and Akong want to get Shamar away just at the time of Karmapa’s death? Was it some kind of cruelty born out of jealousy at the close relationship that Karmapa had always had with Shamar?

I believe that Situ’s motivation was more practical. Situ, Akong and others had already planned to say that they had gotten a prediction letter from Karmapa just before his death. Without Shamar there, then Situ would be the ranking lama and could pass off any story about Karmapa’s passing, including saying that he had received a prediction letter, without anyone to challenge him.

But unfortunately for his plan, there were too many witnesses around Karmapa before his death who saw that he gave no prediction letter to anyone. So that meant that Situ and Akong would have to find a future opportunity to introduce their bogus prediction letter.

Mick Brown implies that Shamar was somehow amiss in absenting himself from Karmapa’s deathbed. But of course, this is quite the opposite of the true state of affairs. Karmapa wanted Shamar to be with him, and Shamar had planned to remain in Chicago. But Shamar’s soft heart proved his undoing here, leaving him open to the intrigues of Situ and Akong.

“Who was truly the principled one here?” Shamar asks. Was it Situ who made Shamar leave Karmapa’s deathbed on a contrived pretext or Shamar who went to Brussels to help his friend, thus missing the passing of the late Karmapa? The answer seems clear. And perhaps worst of all, instead of repaying Shamar’s kindness with gratitude, Situ and Akong use Mick Brown as a mouthpiece to cast aspersions on Shamar’s behavior.

In dealing his dealings with Situ and Akong, it appears that for Shamar no good deed goes unpunished.

“I never had a chance to say goodbye,” Shamar explains. “HH Karmapa didn’t even know that I had left and he was expecting me to return the next morning. After my departure Jamgon and Jigme Rinpoches informed Karmapa that I had left. Karmapa did not say anything. In reply, he just smiled wryly. My mistake was listening to Situ’s request. He took advantage of my kind and naive heart and betrayed me. In any case, it is indescribably sad to see a holy rinpoche give into the lowest human emotions of greed and ambition. I believe that Situ suffers not the slightest guilt over betraying me, his old friend. This is a great disappointment and makes me very sad.”


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