Open letter from Thubten Gyaltsen to Mick Brown

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An Open Letter to Mick Brown
Author of The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa (London: Bloomsbury, 2004).

Dear Mr. Brown:

In your book, you have written about the Black Crown of the Karmapas:

In the seventeenth century, the 10th Karmapa’s pupil, the Emperor [sic] 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. (Dance of 17 Lives, 34.)

As one of the best living authorities on the Black Crown, I can say without a doubt that you are mistaken here Mr. Brown. I am not sure who your source for this story is, but for those of us who packed the Black Crown at Tsurphu and helped His Holiness the sixteenth Karmapa bring it into exile, there is no doubt whatever that we brought the older crown from the Chengzu (Yongle) emperor and not the newer crown from the king of Li Jiang (who was, in contrast to the Chinese ruler, not an emperor, but merely the ruler of a small state between China and Burma that was a vassal of the Chinese emperor). I am concerned that you have received misinformation on this subject and I would like to help you understand the truth.

Let me introduce myself and then tell the story of how we packed and transported the Black Crown for the late Karmapa.

My name is Thubten Gyaltsen and I am now 81 years old. I am a monk and I served under the late sixteenth Karmapa during his lifetime. I was born in the area near Tsurphu monastery in Tibet and I became a monk at Tsurphu monastery at the age of eight. I was a monk there even before the sixteenth Karmapa was recognized and enthroned. When I came to the age of 22, I was given the position of coordinator (Dronyer). My responsibilities were, first, to be in charge of all the religious relics, located in the Karmapa’s room, including the Vajra Crown. Second, I packed black pills make protection cords for the Karmapa to hand out to devotees. Third, I was responsible for keeping the Karmapa’s calendar and daily schedule of meetings with devotees.

My older brother, Damchoe Yongdu, was the general secretary of Rumtek until his death in 1982. And my younger brother, Lekshe Drayan, has been an official of the Karmapa for his whole adult life as I have, and later he served as an assistant secretary of the Karmapa.

When the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa decided to escape to India, the decision was made in secret to prevent officials of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibetan Autonomous Region (PCART), the Chinese administration of Tibet in Lhasa during the fifties, from discovering and stopping our escape. At that time only staff who the Karmapa deemed trustworthy were assigned to pack the relics to bring out with the Karmapa’s party. I myself was in charge of packing the relics located in the Karmapa’s rooms, including the Vajra Crown, as well as other valuable relics. Since the seventeenth century, the Karmapas had two Black Crowns. The first was given by the Ming emperor Chengzu (Yongle) to the fifth Karmapa Deshin Shegpa (1384-1415) in the fifteenth century. The second was an approximate copy given by the King of Li Jiang to the tenth Karmapa Choying Dorje (1604-1674) in the seventeenth century. The older crown was considered more valuable.

All the religious statues and other relics were also carefully sorted, and only the most precious and easily transportable ones were packed for our journey into exile. Some quite valuable large statues were left behind, with numerous smaller ones of lesser value. The Karmapa decided that it was not worthwhile to take both Black Crowns, so he instructed us to pack only the older, more valuable one given to the fifth Karmapa Deshin Shegpa by emperor Chengzu. Obviously, the sixteenth Karmapa wanted to bring the more precious crown. He was quite particular about this, and neither I nor any member of the Karmapa’s staff had any doubt that we had indeed packed and brought the older, more valuable crown with us as we fled Tibet and left the newer one behind at Tsurphu.

Our party left Tsurphu and eventually left Tibet by crossing into Bhutanese territory. Once we were settled in Bhutan , we sent word back to Tsurphu for another party of refugees to join us in exile and bring another cache of valuable relics with them. At Tsurphu, Dechang Kunchog Norden, one of the officials that the Karmapa had left behind, sent the second escape party on to meet us with two giant embroidered silk thangkas and about 300 silk costumes for the tantric lama dances, all antique silk from China, and some very precious. The group successfully evaded Chinese People’s Liberation Army patrols and arrived in Bhutan with their boxes of valuables.

I fled Tibet in the party of the sixteenth Karmapa in 1959 and settled with him in exile in Sikkim, at Rumtek monastery in the early 1960s. From that time until the late Karmapa’s death in 1981, I performed these same functions as Dronyer at Rumtek.

In the early sixties, the Karmapa moved all these valuable items into Rumtek monastery. They remained there in safekeeping under our control until Rumtek monastery changed management in 1993. On August 2 of that year, Sikkim government police and special forces, along with Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches and a large group of their lay followers from Gangtok and elsewhere arrived at Rumtek and took over the monastery by force. Afterwards, the new management prohibited me from going to any important rooms in the monastery but I was allowed to work in the office assigned to the Dronyer for some time.

On June 10, 1994, while Tsultrim Namgyal, the late Karmapa’s attendant, and I were working in the Dronyer’s room, at the order of Situ Rinpoche who was still staying in the room of the sixteenth Karmapa, more than 40 people, a mixture of laypeople and monks, entered my office and demanded keys to all the relic boxes. Gyurme Tsultrim, a khenpo from Sherab Ling, Situ Rinpoche’s monastery in Himachal Pradesh, led the group, and announced that they had arrived on the orders of His Holiness Situ Rinpoche to get the keys for the valuables, presumably to give them to another staff member.

I determined to let them beat or kill me before I would surrender anything. I replied that, as one of the top officials of the Karmapa’s labrang, I knew that Situ Rinpoche had no rights to appoint a Dronyer or any other staff for Rumtek, which was under the administration of the Karmapa’s labrang, not Tai Situ’s labrang. In response to my resistance, Gyurme encouraged the crowd to beat Tsultrim and me. The crowd was just about to fall upon us when a curious event stopped them. In the monastery courtyard, several wandering dogs who usually lie there quietly stood up and positioned themselves in a line facing the room where Situ was living. The dogs began to howl in unison. This strange occurrence shocked the crowd into silence. Then, an older man named Lodro broke the silence and spoke up, calling on the crowd to depart. He did not seem to be afraid, but I believe that the dogs barking had shocked him and changed his mind. The mob followed him out.

A few minutes after the crowd left, a Sikkimese policeman came into my office and started interrogating me, taking down my name and other personal information. Since that day, Tsultrim Namgyal and I were prevented from re-entering Rumtek.

Years later, in 2001, an inventory was conducted by the State Bank of India at Rumtek, by order of the District Court in Gangtok. The Karmapa Charitable Trust nominated me to attend the inventory as one of its representatives, since I was in charge of relics at Rumtek before 1994. However, the lawyer representing defendant #3, Gyaltsab Rinpoche, opposed this in court. In response, the judge in the case decided that one or two members of the Karmapa Trust board should attend instead. The best choice among the trustees was Shamar Rinpoche, who had knowledge of the relics, though not as much as I did. But the state government of Sikkim prevented him from participating in the inventory by banning him from entering the state. That left only two laymen from the Karmapa Charitable Trust to represent the Karmapa Trust at the inventory.

Now I am very old and my vision is poor. If the inventory cannot be conducted before I die, then there will not be many good witnesses left alive who know the relics. Next to me, my younger brother Lekshe Drayan, 78 years old, has good experience, and he even repaired the crown on one occasion when the tip holding the uppermost ruby was bent. Tsorpon Tsultrim Namgyal also handled the crown also has personal experience with it. Besides them, Shamar Rinpoche and Khenpo Chodrak Tenphel saw the crown up close many times, but as high lamas they never had occasion to handle the crown. So my brother Lekshe Drayan is the best witness next to myself.

We are the best authorities on the Black Crown alive today. I do not know why you did not speak to us before claiming falsely that there was some doubt. You could have saved yourself from making this error and from the embarrassment of having to correct it.

Frankly your unfounded claim makes me very suspicious. I can only speculate that this story about there being “doubt” about the crown comes from the current, illegal Rumtek administration of Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches. I believe that you interviewed Tai Situ, Akong Tulku, Tenzin Namgyal and others of their group extensively, and I would not be surprised if you got this story from them. I am concerned that they may have begun to circulate this story to perhaps cover up some mistreatment of the crown. The same unfounded claim that appears in your book also is found in Lea Terhune’s earlier book, Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnaion (Boston: Wisdom, 2004). Perhaps the whole crown or its valuable jewels have gone missing from Rumtek? We should try to discover the fate of the crown as soon as possible.

For these reasons, I hope that the court will decide to re-start the inventory soon. Meanwhile, Mr. Brown, I will hold you partially responsible if anything has happened to the Black Crown of the Karmapas. As an investigative journalist, you should have known better than to spread doubts about something without speaking to those with authority to speak on it. You did not speak to me or any others who knew that the Black Crown brought from Tibet was the original.

I hope this was just an accidental omission on your part. But if there was some intention in spreading unfounded doubt about the Black Crown, perhaps to cover up some theft or damage to the crown, then those who have spread this doubt have, in effect, created an alibi for theft. And I believe that creating an alibi for a crime makes one a type of accomplice in that crime. Perhaps you were misinformed in this case. I do hope so. And if that was true, then we would be pleased to assist you in writing a correction and apology.

Sincerely yours,
Thubten Gyaltsen