Article #7 part 1: “His Master’s Voice” Response to selected errors of fact in Mick Brown’s book

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Article #7 part 1: “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]

As we have discussed in a previous installment of “”His Master’s Voice”,”in his recent book The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa (Bloomsbury, 2004), Mick Brown relies primarily on two low-quality sources for his discussion of the late 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Akong Tulku and his brother Jamdrak (aka Lama Yeshe).
The book by Mick Brown
When a writer relies on poorly informed or untrustworthy sources, it is not surprising that he or she may get some facts wrong. Unfortunately, Brown gets many facts wrong and constructs a faulty argument as a result. Here, I would like to point out some basic errors of fact that Brown makes in his book. These are not the most significant errors. Those would require more space to explain than I have here. We will provide these explanations in our forthcoming book on the Karmapa issue.

For now, let me just detail some of the many small errors in Brown’s book, up to page 80 only, so readers can judge for themselves whether this book is credible on the larger positions it takes.

Orgyen Trinley s Alleged Escape from China

On page 5, following the standard account crafted by Situ Rinpoche and his allies, Brown portrays Orgyen Trinley s trip from Tibet as a dramatic escape with much heroism and derring-do in the face of mortal danger. He describes the boy s arrival in India:

For the group, this was the end of a journey that had begun either days earlier in Tsurphu monastery, some fifty miles from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, and which had brought them 900 miles across the desolate, mountainous regions of western Tibet, into Nepal, and thus to northern India, risking death and capture by Chinese forces.

I believe that Brown has been taken in by this tall tale. The IKKBO has maintained that in reality this alleged escape was staged by Situ Rinpoche and his supporters, who convinced the Chinese government to look the other way when their Living Buddha left the country. Let me explain here how the major details of the case support this conclusion.

First, before his departure, Orgyen Trinley left a letter for the Chinese saying that he had not betrayed his government but was just going to India temporarily to get some religious relics to bring back to Tibet. Orgyen Trinley s followers accept that this statement was not concocted by the Chinese but is a genuine letter written by the boy.

After the event, Orgyen Trinley told a tale of his escape that is very hard to credit. For example, he said he jumped out of his window at night and jumped to the ground an incredible fall of four tall stories, between sixty and seventy feet high. Such a fall would surely kill anyone who would attempt it. Unless of course such a person could fly but then what need to be afraid of any guards?

Originally, Orgyen Trinley and his party said they had made a journey of eight days on foot covering 900 miles. Many journalists in India have ridiculed this. Perhaps in response, later Orgyen Trinley changed his story, knowing the short memory of journalists in general and westerners in particular. His second version added some horses and vehicles for verisimilitude. But Tibetans and Himalayan Buddhists did not forget how implausible was his original story.

Later, followers of Orgyen Trinley changed the boy s story a third time. In response to a report by Japanese professor Shimai Tsui, who published a thorough investigation of the details of the boy s journey, the boy s administrators adopted the version of the story published by Lea Terhune in her recent book, Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation (Wisdom, 2004).

As Shamar Rinpoche has asked his students not to attack Orgyen Trinley personally, I do not want to say too much here and will not do so in the future unless I am forced to do so by continuing misinformation coming from his administration and supporters.

Ponlop Rinpoche

On page 30: Brown says that the 6th Ponlop Rinpoche, a close disciple of Karmapa, died in 1952.  Two things are wrong here. First, Ponlop Rinpoche not was a close disciple of Karmapa. In fact, he was Karmapa s younger brother and the second-ranking lama of Dzogchen Monastery, which made him a lama of the Nyingma school. He was raised from childhood by Dzogchen lamas at their monastery, and did not study with the 16th Karmapa at any time. Only when the Red Army took over Dzogchen Monastery in early 1952 did Ponlop Rinpoche flee to Tsurphu to be with his brother, Karmapa. This story is verified by Ponlop Rinpoche s three nephews, Shamar Rinpoche, his brother Jigme Rinpoche as well as the late Topga Rinpoche. Though Mick Brown met Shamar Rinpoche, he talks as though he knows more about their uncle than his two living nephews. In addition, Ponlop Rinpoche did not die in 1952 as Brown said, but in 1962. I will give Brown the benefit of the doubt here and hope that this was a typographical error.

Tsurphu Monastery

On page 32 Brown says that Tsurphu Monastery is located in eastern Tibet,  which anyone familiar with it would know is not true and which contradicts Brown s own statement earlier. Tsurphu is located in Central Tibet, near Lhasa, as Brown notes on page 5. Then Brown goes on to say that the 5th Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa predicted that while Tsurphu would be destroyed and rebuilt many times, this monastery will be in existence until the end of the world.   This is incorrect. The prophecy predicted this fate for Sachod Karma Gön monastery, which, unlike Tsurphu, is indeed located in eastern Tibet.

The Black Crown of the Karmapa

On page 34 Brown s description of the Black Crown contains two serious errors. First, his description is inaccurate. But more importantly, he incorrectly states that there is some confusion about whether the 16th Karmapa brought the real crown or a replica out from Tibet:

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 traveled. It is not known which crown the 16th Karmapa brought with him when he fled from Tibet into Sikkim in 1959.

This last part is a bold lie. There is no doubt about which crown Karmapa brought from Tibet, the original given by Yung Lo. This is documented very precisely in records kept at the time by Karmapa s administration.

That Brown tells this particular lie is extremely troubling, because it seems to indicate that Brown may be attempting to provide cover for the lamas he sympathizes with, Akong Tulku and Situ Rinpoche, who may have stolen the Black Crown from Rumtek and replaced it with a fake.

Let me briefly recount the story of the Black Crown. When the Emperor Yung Lo met the 5th Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa numerous miracles and signs appeared in the sky for the 18 days that Karmapa gave public teachings. Famous Chinese painters and calligraphers of the period copied these signs daily and wrote descriptions of them in the four main languages of the Chinese Empire Mongolian, Mandarin, Tibetan and Turkic. They form the basis of our understanding of how the Emperor came to give the Black Crown to the Karmapa.

After several days of teachings, the Emperor said to Karmapa, Whenever you perform a ceremony of blessing, you always appear to me in a special way. Your body is in the form of Vajradhara and you are wearing a kind of black turban or crown on your head. 

Karmapa responded that it could be that when the body of a great bodhisattva is teaching in human, or nirmanakaya form, this body can also be simultaneously manifested in sambhogakaya, or ethereal form. To further answer the emperor s question, Karmapa explained that many eons in the past, in a previous life as a cave-meditator, Karmapa attained the eighth bodhisattva bhumi. Then, a hundred thousand wisdom dakinis cut their black hair and offered it to Karmapa as an offering. They manifested their hair as a crown that they placed on his head and enthroned Karmapa as a Buddha for their sambhogakaya land. The 5th Karmapa said that the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khenpa was an emanation of that sambhogakaya Buddha for our world.

The emperor marveled at this story, and in his devotion offered to have a replica of this crown made for Karmapa: If I make a similar crown and offer it to you, can you give the blessing of the sambhogakaya Buddha to sentient beings? 

Karmapa responded, Yes, the bodhisattva s blessing depends on his having attained the wish paramita–that whatever he wishes for sentient beings will come true–so this is possible. 

The emperor was very pleased. He left Karmapa, and ordered the most skilled craftsmen to make a crown studded with precious stones and crowned by a rare ruby the size of a human fingertip. The 5th Karmapa accepted this gift and began the tradition of the Black Crown Ceremony. Since then, when any Karmapa performs this ceremony, he meditates in the form of a sambhogakaya Buddha and thus gives a unique empowerment of samadhi and wisdom to those in attendance. Karmapas from the 5th through the 16th wore this crown and gave this blessing through the ceremony.

Later, during the time of the 10th Karmapa, the King of Li Jiang, a kingdom bordering Burma, made a duplicate of Yung Lo s crown also with valuable stones, as a gift for the 10th Karmapa.

As I said above, it is just a lie to say that the 16th Karmapa was confused about whether he brought the original or duplicate crown from Tibet in 1959. His administration officially documented that the older crown given by Yung Lo was brought and the one given by the King of Li Jiang was left behind at Tsurphu. The paperwork exists today to prove this.

There is no reason whatsoever for doubt on this score. So why does Brown seem to be sowing doubt about the crown? This makes me very suspicious of Brown s motivation. I cannot imagine where he would have gotten such an idea except from Akong Tulku at Samye Ling, from whom we have heard this kind of talk before. So yet again, it is clear that Brown speaks with his master s voice  and, in this situation at least, is just a mouthpiece for Akong Tulku.

My suspicions increase when I relate what Brown says here to an event that occurred just after the District Court in Gangtok issued the order for an inventory of the moveable valuables held at Rumtek. At that time, it was known that the supporters of Situ and Gyaltsab became extremely nervous. They acted as if they had some crime to conceal. The directors of the Karmapa Charitable Trust started to worry that Situ and Gyaltsab had stolen the jewels in the Black Crown.

Once the inventory was underway, it did not appear that Situ and Gyaltsab and their group cared much if most holy objects, including thangkas, statues, and ritual objects were examined and catalogued. But when it came time to examine a large old thangka, an artwork by an early Karmapa and the Black Crown, their group became quite agitated. Their behavior made the court so suspicious that it immediately sealed the Rumtek reliquary to preserve it for investigation after the court proceedings could be concluded.

In light of this suspicious behavior on behalf of the lamas that Brown appears to sympathize with, we believe that Brown s account, which contradicts the statements of the 16th Karmapa, is actually a the first step in creating a story to cover Situ s group s theft of the Black Crown itself, or perhaps its priceless jewels.

Tibetan History: Ruling Dynasties and Lama Tsongkhapa

On page 35 Brown says: With the waning of Mongol influence, Tibet came under the control of a succession of Tsang kings who patronized the Karma Kagyu school of the Karmapas. 

Brown has his Tibetan history quite confused here.

First, under Kublai Khan, the Sakyas did indeed rule Tibet. Then, three dynasties followed each under the influence of the Kagyu school. First came not the Tsang kings, as Brown says, but the Paldru Dynasty. And these kings did not follow the Karma Kagyu but rather the Paldru Kagyu. After the Paldru Dynasty came the Rinpung Dynasty and then the Tsang Dynasty (4 kings), both of which did follow the Karma Kagyu. Mick Brown tried to recount some of this history but he didn t do very well, perhaps because he was depending on the verbal recounting of someone without much knowledge, such as Akong Tulku.

Then, also on page 35, Brown talks about Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Dalai Lama s Gelugpa school.

As a monk, Tsongkhapa studied with teachers from both the Kagyu and Nyingma schools, but he became disillusioned with what he regarded as the corruption and laxity among the established Buddhist orders, and set about founding a new order that advocated a return to pure Buddhism,  emphasizing celibacy and scholasticism as prerequisites to the more advanced Tantric practices. It was not until after Tsongkhapa s death that this order would take the name of the Gelugpa, or virtuous ones  ( Gelugpa  meaning those of the Gelug school ).

Though Tsongkhapa studied with lamas from all schools, and as a teenager he was even given genyun vows by the 4th Karmapa, it is not accurate to imply that his main teachers were from the Nyingma and Kagyu. Whatever other teachers this highly learned lama may have had, Tsongkhapa s main guru was always Redawa Zhonu Lodro from the Sakya school.

Brown also claims that Tsongkhapa became disillusioned with the laxity of the other schools, and implies that is why he founded his own school. What really happened was that Tsongkhapa began giving many public teachings and so developed a large following. Being a scholar, he then founded Ganden Monastery outside of Lhasa as a Buddhist university devoted to rigorous scholarship and to propounding his particular view of the Madhyamaka philosophy, which differed on some points from that of the other three Tibetan schools. The monastery name Ganden  later morphed into the form Gelugpa,  by which Tsongkhapa s school would be known. It is a misconception to say that Tsongkhapa meant to found a school whose goal was to be especially virtuous.

This shows clearly that Mick Brown is not very learned on Tibetan history, politics and religion. We suspect that in these areas he was largely repeating what he heard from his sources, Akong Tulku and his brother Jamdrak (Lama Yeshe), two lamas who received very little formal education. Brown makes many other historical mistakes, but we will not rebut all his historical errors outside of the examples here.

The Role of Lama Yeshe

On page 49 Brown says that Akong s brother, Lama Yeshe, was a translator for Karmapa. He repeats a story about Karmapa s visit to Bodh Gaya in 1956 as if he had been there personally. This however would have been very unlikely. In 1956 Lama Yeshe would have been a 12-year old boy named Jamdrak living in Tibet who had not yet met Karmapa. Yeshe became translator for Karmapa only in 1967 and spent only a few months with Karmapa in his whole life, when he was in his twenties. So Brown should have made it clear that Yeshe s story here was not an eyewitness account, but just hearsay.

On this same page, Brown then says that the Ashok family  became rich on hotels. But the real Ashok Burman came from a family whose wealth derived from the era of the British Raj and a thriving business in Ayurvedic medicines. Of course, Brown s source, Lama Yeshe, can say that he heard this, but it is incorrect for him to recount this story as if he were there, which would have been impossible.

The Relative Ages of Jamgon and Situ Rinpoches

On page 51: Brown says that Jamgon Rinpoche was the youngest of the four rinpoches on the Karmapa search committee, and thus younger than Situ Rinpoche. But in reality he was born in the year of the horse, so would have been a few months older than Situ.


In the second part of this installment, I will detail further errors in Brown s text, including his discussion of the funeral of the late Karmapa.


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