Article #2: “The Secret History of Akong Tulku”

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This article is the second 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).

From Nomad Boy to Village TulkuAkong Tulku has been spiritual director of the Samye Ling Tibetan Center in Eskdalemuir, Scotland for three decades. He is Mick Brown’s teacher and the primary source for Brown’s stories of the late 16th Karmapa. Akong has a colorful past, to say the least. He has enjoyed great success and has suffered great disappointment.


The book by Mick Brown
He is a cunning strategist and a tireless promoter. Born a humble boy, Akong’s lifelong dream was to become a great leader. In short, Akong’s story is a cautionary fable. It illustrates the corrosive power of ambition on a mans heart.This account of Akong’s early years in Tibet and India relies on first-hand accounts by HH Shamar Rinpoche and Dronyer Ngodrup, a long-time official at Karmapa’s main seat at Rumtek Monastery. Our account of Akong’s later years and his time in Europe relies on three additional sources. Jigme Rinpoche and Tsorpönla served as attendants to Karmapa in Europe and Hannah Nydahl served as his translator.

Our story begins in Old Tibet. In the first half of the twentieth century there was a small village in the region of Tshawa Pashö in eastern Tibet. In this village lived a ngakpa, or sorcerer, of local repute. As in many villages of Tibet where popular Buddhism blended into magic, this ngakpa made his abode in the modest village temple, Drölma Lhakang, where he performed simple pujas. For a fee, the ngakpa gave blessings, cast spells and answered the everyday needs of villagers for white and black magic. It was even said that this ngakpa could cause someones death, on request of course. Though he was not considered a reincarnation of a high lama or any other known personage, the villagers looked up to this ngakpa and respected him for his powers.

This village was under the jurisdiction of Situ Rinpoches seat at Palpung Monastery. When the ngakpa died, the villagers asked the 11th Tai Situ to recognize a reincarnation for their late magician.

Situ Rinpoche knew that in Buddhist doctrine, village ngakpas generally do not have the power to determine their own rebirths. Yet, in old Tibet there were many tulkus of convenience, and Situ wanted to please the villagers. Therefore, he selected the young son of a local nomad family as the new reincarnation. Being just a kind of honorary tulku, the boy received no training in Buddhist ritual or instruction in philosophy from the monastery. Indeed, he had no formal education at all, but just picked up a few bits of Buddhist lore here and there from monks and lamas who occasionally passed through the village.

When the boy was in his teens, at the request of his family, Palpung Monastery made the boy a monk. Then he was sent to an initiation of the Rinchen Terzöd given by Trungpa Rinpoche at his monastery at Surmang. There, the village tulku got his first big break: he met Trungpa Rinpoche and became his disciple and attendant. Now, in the service of a powerful lama, the boy would have had the chance to get an education, if he had wanted it. However, the Chinese invasion of eastern Tibet in the early 1950s cut short Akong’s life with Trungpa Rinpoche in Tibet. The boy lost any chance for a traditional Tibetan education. At age 18 or 19, he fled the country with his master. Needless to say, while in Tibet before 1959,

How well did Akong know the late 16th Karmapa before leaving Tibet? Though he had met the late Karmapa a couple times or more in large crowds at formal ceremonies, he never had a chance to meet Karmapa one-on-one. So it cannot be said that Akong knew HH Karmapa in Tibet.

Akong in India: A Sullen Survivor

After the Chinese invasion, Trungpa escaped to India and Akong accompanied him. Shortly after crossing the border, the pair came to Kalimpong so that Trungpa could visit Gyalwa Karmapa at Rumtek Monastery for a few days. As Trungpa’s attendant, Akong did not accompany Trungpa on his visit to Rumtek, but remained alone in Kalimpong. Somehow, during Trungpa’s travels back and forth between Rumtek and Kalimpong, Akong and Trungpa met the 16th Karmapa’s general secretary, Damchoe Yongdu.

Being short of funds after their escape from Tibet, the pair tried to sell him a dzi, a decorative pendant, which they felt they could part with. But the general secretary was not interested. This made Akong quite angry. He was heard in Kalimpong to make many derogatory comments about the secretary and about HH Karmapa himself. Akong complained that even though Karmapa received so many offerings, yet he would not spare the money to buy a single dzi from a couple of lamas who were in trouble. Such gossip from a low-ranking lama would normally have meant little at Rumtek. But because Akong was the attendant of Trungpa Rinpoche, his talk was noted by Karmapa’s administration.

At this time, young Situ Rinpoche was living in Gangtok. There was no vehicle road at the time from town to the monastery, so it took nearly a whole day to make the trip between Gangtok and Rumtek on foot. The monks at Rumtek heard that Trungpa Rinpoches attendant was meeting Situ Rinpoche on the Gangtok road but not coming to Rumtek. Perhaps this was because of the distance to Rumtek or for some other reason not explained. It seemed perhaps that Akong did not want to put himself in the presence of HH Karmapa. Again, though Akong had little standing himself, we noted his affairs because of his connection with Trungpa Rinpoche.

Akong’s First Meeting with Karmapa

At that time Trungpa met Frida Bedi, who organized the now-famous young lamas school in New Delhi. In 1961, Mrs. Bedi invited Trungpa Rinpoche to become the schools headmaster and to teach Buddhist philosophy to the lamas there. Trungpa accepted this invitation, and put his attendant Akong in charge of the kitchen and also in charge of maintaining school discipline. Akong now would have his first chance to meet Karmapa personally. But the meeting would not be an auspicious one.

In 1962, HH Karmapa visited New Delhi. HH Karmapa rented a house about ten minutes walk away from Mrs. Bedi’s school, in the Greenpark area of New Delhi. He remained there for about a month.

One day, at around 10 o clock in the morning, the young lamas of Mrs. Bedi’s school went out to pay their respects to Gyalwa Karmapa. Akong followed them to the house where Karmapa was staying. Akong entered the house and found His Holiness cleaning bird cages and talking with the young lamas. In the presence of HH Karmapa, Akong angrily scolded the young lamas for being absent from school without leave. He ordered them to return to Mrs. Bedi’s house immediately. Shocked, Karmapa confronted Akong about this unusual behavior. Akong answered that it was his job as caretaker of the school to enforce school rules. Karmapa stared dumbfounded at Akong, who then beat his own retreat. Clearly, this was a direct challenge to HH Karmapa.

Akong was also known to often criticize Gyalwa Karmapa behind his back for supposedly showing disrespect in the past to Akong’s lama, Situ Rinpoche. This criticism got back to Karmapa through the young lamas.

Akong Snubs Shamarpa

In early 1963 Shamarpa was enthroned at Rumtek. Right afterwards, he was sent to Dharamsala for a special ceremony under HH Dalai Lama to lift the Tibetan governments 170-year ban on the Shamar reincarnations. In those days, all the exile lamas thought that they would be returning to Tibet in a few years. They thought Tibetan government approval was needed for Shamar Rinpoche. Getting this approval was a way to show respect to HH Dalai Lama.

By this time, Frida Bedi had moved had her lama school to Dalhousie near Dharamsala. There were rumors that two high rinpoches, Athro Rinpoche and Lama Karma Trinley, took the day-long trip by bus from the school at Dalhousie to pay respects to Shamar Rinpoche, but that Akong declined to accompany them. Instead, Akong was known to be angry at what he saw as Karmapa’s nepotism. Akong thought it was wrong that Karmapa would recognize his own nephew as Shamarpa. He also was angry that HH Karmapa should have that nephew reinstated by the Tibetan exile government, allowing Shamarpa to take his former position as the number two ranking lama in the Karma Kagyu lineage and effectively displacing Situ in the hierarchy.

Leaving for England

In the fall, Trungpa won a Spalding Scholarship to study at Oxford, and he took Akong with him to England. It was known at the time that Trungpa Rinpoche was very enthusiastic about the enthronement of Shamarpa.

So by the time he left for England in 1963, Akong had never spent much time with HH Karmapa. At Mrs. Bedi s school he was a member of the staff busy with the kitchen and the children while Karmapa for his part was occupied by a steady stream of visitors. But even on the one occasion when Akong did have a chance to interact with His Holiness, Akong showed nothing but disrespect to Karmapa. So it can hardly be said that Akong was close to the late Karmapa during this period. And it can certainly not be said that Akong is a good authority on Karmapa s activities at this time.

A couple years after Chögyam Trungpa had arrived in the United Kingdom, he decided that he wanted to organize a Buddhist center. He asked Akong to help by serving as administrator of the new center, Samye Ling in Scotland. To set up a Karma Kagyu center, the lamas needed a kind of license or certificate of good-standing from their spiritual leader Gyalwa Karmapa. Without this imprimatur, British students would not have trusted Trungpa Rinpoche and his attendant Akong as spiritual teachers. So Trungpa wrote to Karmapa to request such a certificate. Akong did the same.

Being a significant lama of the lineage and having the full trust of Karmapa, Trungpa Rinpoche had no trouble getting Karmapa s approval. Akong s case was different. He must have worried that his past expressions of frustration against Karmapa-the widely heard gossip and the open demonstrations of disrespect-would hurt his chances of getting a certificate. Therefore, Akong made a big change in his behavior at this time, and began to announce his admiration for HH Karmapa whenever he could get an audience. We are not sure if this was successful. We do believe that HH Karmapa did send Akong some kind of certificate, perhaps a very formulaic recommendation appropriate for a minor lama who was the attendant of Trungpa Rinpoche.

Akong’s Brother Jamdrak, alias Lama Yeshe

Akong also had a younger brother, Jamdrak. Since taking vows in 1980 in Woodstock, NY, Jamdrak has called himself Lama Yeshe. Next to Akong, Lama Yeshe is the major source for Mick Brown s discussion of the late Karmapa.

Unfortunately, Jamdrak is no better source on the late Karmapa than his brother. Jamdrak began his career as a student at the English-language secondary school in New Delhi. After finishing there, he could not find funds to attend university. So he wrote to HH Karmapa at Rumtek asking for employment. Karmapa assented and Jamdrak came to Rumtek in 1967. This was Jamdrak s first time meeting HH Karmapa.

Because he could speak English, Jamdrak was given the job of meeting Indian visitors and ushering them in and out of meetings with Karmapa. So Jamdrak became a member of Karmapa s staff. Yet, when asked, he always replied that he belonged to Situ Rinpoche s administration and saw Situ as his guru. Situ Rinpoche was at Rumtek at the time for his studies, and Jamdrak spent nearly all his off hours with his master, Tai Situ. Jamdrak remained a little more than a year and a half at Rumtek before his brother Akong sent for him from England and he left Karmapa s service. During his time at Rumtek, perhaps Jamdrak closely assisted the late Karmapa for six or seven months only, since Karmapa was away on travels to Bhutan and India for five or six months during this period.

A Bizarre Attempt to Embarrass Shamar Rinpoche

In 1970 or 1971, Akong returned to India. At that time he came to Rumtek to see HH Karmapa and Situ Rinpoche. Akong was put in the room reserved for Mrs. Bedi s visits. Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche and Chögling Rinpoche were staying at Rumtek at this time. These two sons of Tulku Orgyen Rinpoche were closely linked with HH Karmapa and were also close friends and classmates of Shamar Rinpoche. Akong knew that Chökyi Nyima was close to Gyalwa Karmapa and Shamar Rinpoche. One time, he told Chökyi Nyima casually that he knew Shamar Rinpoche when he was a child and his name was Dorjela. But now that he has become Shamar Rinpoche, Akong said, Akong had no desire to be friends with him.

Shamar Rinpoche did not know Akong Tulku personally but tells us that whenever Akong would see him at Rumtek, he would always try to avoid running into him. One incident in particular illustrates the strange attitude of resentment that Akong displayed towards Shamarpa.

Right after Akong left Rumtek in 1971, he sent a letter to Shamar Rinpoche. The letter made a curious request. It asked Rinpoche to list the lamas depicted in the 42 thangkas at Rumtek in the Golden Rosary series. Rinpoche was curious that the minor lama who had avoided him while at Rumtek should now make such a request through a letter. Nonetheless, hoping to be helpful, Rinpoche decided to reply. He drew a diagram of the Golden Rosary with the names of each lama. The diagram showed correctly that in the Golden Rosary there were six Shamarpas, three Situpas and one Gyaltsab. There were also two Jamgon Kongtruls who were added in very recent times, along with various other lamas.

After sending this letter, Shamar Rinpoche never received a reply. But he continued to wonder why Akong would approach him with such a question. Would it not have made more sense for Akong to ask either Thrangu Rinpoche, the abbot of Rumtek, or his own lama, Situ Rinpoche, who was only a year and a half younger than Shamar Rinpoche?

Rinpoche’s best guess was that perhaps Akong was deliberately trying to humiliate Shamar Rinpoche. Akong, as we said, had never received a formal education in Buddhist history. So it is possible, Rinpoche surmises, that Akong thought that all the lamas wearing red crowns in the Golden Rosary thangkas were incarnations of his own guru, Situ Rinpoche, rather than Shamarpas. So, perhaps Akong thought he would embarrass Shamar by making him point this out. As it turned out, Akong got a reply that he didn t expect. This would explain his failure to respond to Shamar Rinpoche s answer. If anything, this encounter deepened Akong s resentment for Shamarpa.

Hosting Karmapa in 1974

In 1974, HH Karmapa made his first trip to the West. On his way across Europe Gyalwa Karmapa was hosted at centers run either by Lame Ole Nydahl or Kalu Rinpoche. Only in the United Kingdom did Karmapa stay with Akong.

Akong still needed Gyalwa Karmapa s support to bolster his standing with British Buddhists. So he pretended respect to Karmapa in order to enhance his own prestige, although this must have galled him, given his resentment of HH Karmapa.

Shortly after Karmapa arrived at Samye Ling, Akong made an unusual request. He asked Karmapa not to visit the United States as the guest of Trungpa Rinpoche as had been planned. By this time, Akong had broken with his former master and was trying to damage his reputation. On hearing this, HH Karmapa scolded Akong and left immediately for the US.

At this time, Karmapa s total visit with Akong had been just under two weeks.

Inviting Himself Along on Karmapa s European Tour: 1977

In 1977 Gyalwa Karmapa made a second visit to the West. This time, Akong was more aggressive in his efforts to get close to Karmapa. Akong invited himself to follow Karmapa around Europe. As Karmapa s group stopped at Kalu Rinpoche s many centers around Europe, Akong was heard to make frequent disparaging remarks to HH Karmapa about Kalu. Unfortunately, this continuous stream of calumny did have a chilling effect on the relations between the late Karmapa and Kalu Rinpoche. Akong would later regret his role in creating distrust between Karmapa and Kalu. .

He would also later regret a particularly embarrassing episode that occurred at Kalu Rinpoche s center in Brussels.

Somehow, at the beginning of the tour, Akong had managed to get a copy of letterhead with Karmapa s official crest. On this purloined stationery, Akong had an order typed in Karmapa s name. This order appointed a new director of all Karma Kagyu Buddhist centers in Europe-none other than Akong Tulku himself. All through the trip, Akong was looking for the right moment to present this letter for Karmapa s signature. He preferred a time when Karmapa would not actually try to read the letter or query him about it, because Akong knew that this was the only way Karmapa would sign.

But it wouldn t matter whether Karmapa tried to read it or not. The letter was written in English, a language Akong knew that HH Karmapa did not understand.

Akong found his opportunity during a busy meeting of western students with HH Karmapa at Kalu Rinpoche s center in Brussels. While Karmapa was surrounded by people making various requests, Akong slipped his letter on the table where Karmapa was working. Akong asked for a quick signature, as if it was some routine matter. Being perhaps too innocent in worldly affairs, Karmapa took out his pen. Only quick action by his secretary Achi Tsephel prevented Karmapa from signing. On seeing Akong s letter, Achi quickly bent over Karmapa. In a panic, Achi whisked the letter away.

To the great embarrassment of Akong, Achi then proceeded to translate this letter for HH Karmapa.

Once hearing the letter s contents, Karmapa became angry. But Akong didn t back down. Instead, showing his signature boldness, Akong responded that Karmapa himself had told Akong to have this letter drawn up. Karmapa answered sharply that if he had needed a letter, he would have had his own secretary draft it. This left Akong quite flushed, and he departed HH Karmapa in a huff. After this, Karmapa began to realize that Akong s criticisms of Kalu Rinpoche were probably unfounded, and the two lamas repaired their strained relationship.

Akong returned in shame to Samye Ling. All told, he had spent about three weeks with Karmapa on this trip.

Akong knew that he had lost much face that day in Brussels. He worried that his career in Europe was threatened. So, in early 1979, Akong made two apologies to try to repair his reputation. First, he apologized to Kalu Rinpoche for spreading slander against him to Karmapa in Europe. Then he came to Rumtek to confess to Karmapa himself. In both cases, he had to sponsor pujas to purify himself. The Himalayan Buddhist community viewed this as a humiliation for Akong.

Far from Karmapa in Body, Speech and Mind

To sum up, Akong Tulku had never been close to the late 16th Karmapa. He did not meet HH Karmapa in Tibet personally. And though he did meet Karmapa in both India and in Europe, their encounters were brief and tense.

After he escaped to India, Karmapa s base was Rumtek, which Akong visited just for a matter of a few days. Unlike his brother Jamdrak, Akong was never part of Karmapa s staff, even for a brief period. He only came into contact with Rumtek as the attendant of Chögyam Trungpa. While Akong was considered a Karma Kagyu lama, albeit a very minor one, he was under the jurisdiction of Situ Rinpoche, not of Karmapa. In New Delhi, Akong also met Karmapa two or three times, but these encounters were memorable only for being short and disappointing for Akong.

At Samye Ling in Scotland, Akong did receive from Karmapa a couple letters to support fundraising efforts in the UK. The only real time Akong spent with Karmapa was when Karmapa visited Samye Ling for two weeks in 1974 and when Akong accompanied Karmapa s entourage through Europe in 1977, for three weeks. This makes a total of five weeks that Akong spent with Karmapa in Europe. This is hardly enough to qualify Akong as any kind of authority on the late Karmapa.

His younger brother Jamdrak, as we mentioned above, spent a year and a half in Karmapa s employ at Rumtek, though Karmapa was present for only about half that time. The only other possibility Jamdrak would have had to meet the late Karmapa was in early 1980 when HH Karmapa came to Woodstock, NY for a few weeks. However, at that time Jamdrak had just taken monk s vows (becoming Lama Yeshe). He was in retreat under Khenpo Karthar during HH Karmapa s whole visit and did not have the chance to meet Karmapa. Shortly after this visit, Karmapa died, so obviously the new lama Yeshe would have had no chance to meet him.

Yeshe/Jamdrak s relationship with the late Karmapa was superficial, but it was not strained as was his brother Akong s. One might compare Akong s relationship with Karmapa to the relationship between Iago and Othello in Shakespeare s play. Like Iago, Akong understood the 16th Karmapa s personality only well enough to try to deceive him. And like Iago, Akong wanted only to feed his own ambition and exact revenge against Karmapa for perceived insults.

There are dozens of genuine administrators of the late Karmapa still alive. They have far superior knowledge than both Yeshe and his brother. They also lack Akong s resentment of Karmapa. So we wonder why Brown would have chosen his two lamas as sources. The only explanation we can imagine is that Brown was trying to please his teacher Akong and help boost his reputation.

We believe that the many errors in Brown s text can be traced to these two unreliable sources. In future installments we will address these errors. We hope that this discussion will help readers of Brown s book and all who are interested in the Karmapa controversy to judge for themselves.

Next time, we will share an open letter to Mick Brown himself outlining what we see as his intentional bias in treating the major points of the Karmapa controversy.

Lama Karma Wangchuk

International Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization


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