Setting the Record Straight #1

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The First in a Series of Responses to “Karmapa: 

Responding to “Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation” by Lea Terhune (Wisdom Publications, 2004)

Date: 19.03.2004

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Twelve years ago today, on March 19, 1992, Tai Situ Rinpoche produced a letter that he claimed was written by the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Ripge Dorje, predicting the details of his rebirth. So began the unfortunate controversy over the identity of the Seventeenth Karmapa. Since that time, this issue has split the Karma Kagyu lineage.
The book by Tai Situ’s long-time secretary, Lea Terhune
It has sown the seeds of discord and acrimony among dharma students. And it has generated numerous discussions among those interested in Tibetan Buddhism around the world. The latest development in the controversy is the appearance of a new book. Entitled Karmapa: the Politics of Reincarnation, the book was written by Tai Situ’s long-time secretary, Lea Terhune and published by Wisdom Publications in Boston. Some have greeted this book as a fair and balanced discussion of the main issues in the controversy over the identity of the Seventeenth Karmapa.We couldn’t disagree more. In our estimation, this book is indeed quite unfair and unbalanced. It contains numerous inaccuracies. Its primary assertions are unsupported by the facts of the case as they are widely known. And its retelling of history is biased towards a particular view of the role of the main players in this drama. We do not exaggerate when we say this book fails to meet even the minimum requirements of responsible non-fiction or journalism.

We also feel that there’s very little new here. The main claims that Terhune makes in this book to support the candidacy of Urgyen Trinley were already made by Tai Situ and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoches in 1992 when Situ Rinpoche first produced his letter. We have already produced original source documents to refute all of these claims in our book The Karmapa Papers, published in September 1992. To our minds, Terhune is simply rehashing old misrepresentations. Indeed, it reminds us of the classic rhetorical technique, much favored by authoritarian politicians, known as the “Big Lie”-that if you repeat the same unfounded claims 100 or 1,000 times then people will start to accept them as truth. Or perhaps, Terhune hopes that people in western countries are so focused on the present time that they easily forget what has been said in the past.

But Terhune’s book is not only old wine in new bottles. Or we might even say old vinegar, for her vitriol is barely disguised by a pseudo-journalistic tone that attempts to imply much more objectivity than Terhune is capable of. To be fair to Terhune, she has inserted some novel and quite bold misstatements. For example, Terhune says that the Sixteenth Karmapa was angry at the Danish Lama Ole Nydahl for giving initiations in Russia. This claim is easy to refute by simple chronology. We only need remember that the Sixteenth Karmapa passed away in 1981. At that time, the Soviet Union was still governed by the Communist Party. Obviously, under its official atheist ideology, the chance for a Tibetan lama from a western European country to teach Buddhism in the Soviet Union was nil.

Lama Ole did indeed go to Russia to teach, but only in 1989, after the government of Mikhail Gorbachev had begun to open up the country through Perestroika. But this was eight years after the death of the late Karmapa.

Having some experience with her style of writing, we are not surprised at Terhune’s obfuscation. But we do wonder how Terhune’s editors and the fact-checkers at a reputable Buddhist publisher like Wisdom would let such an obvious error slip through.This is just one of several new misrepresentations that litter Terhune’s text. We will identify these and answer them one-by-one, we will respond to them in detail, and we will offer documentation and evidence so that people can judge for themselves.

Since the outbreak of the controversy, Shamar Rinpoche has always encouraged his students to focus on their dharma practice and leave sectarian politics to the lamas who are responsible for creating this issue. However, in light of the strong misrepresentations made by Terhune, and to prevent the spread of further confusion, we feel duty bound to respond in some detail to the assertions she makes in her book.

Shamar Rinpoche has also been reluctant to respond himself or have his students respond to claims made by Tai Situ and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoches. So, while these two lamas have aggressively promoted their cause through the news media in an attempt to win the war of public opinion, especially in the West, Shamar Rinpoche has preferred to work quietly through the Indian courts. In this way, he has hoped to establish a legal basis for control of the main seat of the Karmapa at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim and thus settle the question of legitimacy in a more sober venue.

There have been many calls on Shamar Rinpoche to respond to the well publicized assertions of Urgyen Trinley’s followers. Perhaps the most insistent of these calls came at a March 2001 conference in Kathmandu sponsored by the IKKBO. At the conference were high lamas of the Karma Kagyu lineage along with students from centers around the world who follow Sharma Rinpoche. The conference passed a resolution calling on Shamar Rinpoche and the IKKBO leadership to compile and release a list of the main misrepresentations made by Situ Rinpoche’s group.

However, Shamar Rinpoche still remained reluctant to enter the fray. In the end, the IKKBO leadership postponed releasing this list of misrepresentations pending further developments in the courts and in the news media.

Then, at the end of 2002, the IKKBO received an inquiry over the internet asking when we were going to release our list of misrepresentations. At that time, we responded that we had learned that Terhune’s book was pending and that we wanted to wait until its publication so that we could provide a comprehensive response to the claims of Situ Rinpoche’s group. We posted both the text of the email query and our response on the website we had set up to present information relating to the whole controversy,

Not long after this, and apparently in reaction to our statement, Terhune’s publisher, Wisdom Publications, released a public statement saying that they were canceling publication of Terhune’s book. Though we looked forward to offering our response, we were actually quite relieved to learn that this book would not be released after all, since we suspected that it would simply add fuel to the fire of this unfortunate disagreement and deepen the confusion of dharma students and interested people, particularly those in western countries. In light of the publisher’s announcement, we decided that it was unnecessary to reveal the documents and information that we had ready to counter the claims of Urgyen Trinley’s advocates.

So after her publisher’s statement, you can imagine that we were very surprised to see the release of Terhune’s book by Wisdom in early 2004.

This raised questions for us. Were Situ Rinpoche and his group not afraid of our response after all? Did they think we would not respond? Or, was publishing this book and risking a response from us that could greatly embarrass them and discredit their cause an act of desperation?

There is good reason to believe so. In the spring of 2003, the high court in Sikkim made a landmark decision in the long-running case for control of the Karmapa’s seat at Rumtek Monastery. This decision was favorable to the Karmapa Charitable Trust associated with Shamar Rinpoche and against the claims for possession of Rumtek made by Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches. Did these lamas perhaps believe that since they were losing the battle in the Indian courts that they might as well move the fight to the public relations front? Perhaps releasing an error-filled book might be considered irresponsible by more calm minds. But to the frightened man who feels he has nothing to lose, perhaps such a rash act seems like just the bold stroke needed to prevent disaster?

It is fruitless to try to fathom the motivations of others, especially in a case as complex as this one. Let it suffice to say that we now believe that we now have no choice but to provide the clarification that so many have demanded.

To that end, we have decided to develop short, specific statements of correction to the many significant misrepresentations that we have found in Terhune’s book. We plan to release these statements on a regular basis over the coming months. We intend to present the facts along with enough documentation to allow people to judge for themselves.

Shamar Rinpoche has always said that it would be best for everyone if we could leave the Karma Kagyu controversy to the leaders of the two parties to solve. Wouldn’t it be nice if Buddhist practitioners could focus on their dharma practice of developing wisdom and compassion without having to concern themselves with an arcane controversy or judge teachers and teachings on “our side” from those on “their side”? But unfortunately this issue has developed an almost irresistible fascination to dharma practitioners at all levels who have started to follow it as if it were some kind of religious soap-opera. Rinpoche believes that this is just another distraction and that it merely deepens the confusion in which we find ourselves.

To dispel this confusion once and for all, Shamar Rinpoche has agreed to let the IKKBO set the record straight now. Therefore, we will take the opportunity to challenge the claims of those who present partisan opinion as good journalism and ungrounded assertion as fact.

Dealing with lamas is a new experience for many Buddhist students from countries outside of Tibet such as China or the nations of Europe and America. In our experience non-Tibetans are sometimes too quick to accept questionable behavior and assertions from lamas. Perhaps the reason for this is that these new dharma students misunderstand the nature of the bond of samaya established between teacher and student in the Vajrayana tradition. Perhaps these students feel that if they have taken an initiation from a teacher, that they are obliged to accept everything this teacher may say as truth, no matter how far-fetched or ungrounded. These students think it is their duty only to blindly believe, and not to judge for themselves.

This is not our understanding of proper conduct. Didn’t the Buddha call on every person to think for him or herself? We intend to present the facts so that anyone with an interest in this issue can do just that.

We will present the facts in the coming months. We will systematically challenge assertions by Terhune, Situ Rinpoche and others that we believe to be false. And, at some point in the future, we will release court documents that show serious inconsistencies in the case made by followers of Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches. Indeed, we believe that their group has been unsuccessful in the Indian courts because they have amassed a history of legal filings that are inconsistent with each other.

Over the course of the decade that this case has dragged on, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches have filed petitions that contradict what they said in earlier petitions. Is it possible that they have forgotten their own story? If you are telling the truth of course, it is much easier to remember your story, no matter how much time passes. By contrast, a perusal of the court documents will show that Karmapa Charitable Trust has been rigorously consistent in its statements. The courts seem to have recognized this in their recent rulings favorable to the Trust.

To illustrate this point, in the near future the IKKBO will release copies of these court documents for the historical record. It is our hope that non-Tibetans, who may not be familiar with the behavior of some lamas who have been less than forthright, will be disabused of the idea that all lamas are trustworthy and that they never engaged in politics for their own gain.

But first, we will begin with responses targeted to the misrepresentations that Terhune makes in her book. Please check back to this website on a regular basis as we set the record straight.

In the meantime, we welcome your comments and questions.

The International Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization New Delhi, Hong Kong, Washington, DC

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