Open letter from Lama Karma Wangchuk to Mick Brown

Posted on Posted in Letter

Article #3: “His Master’s Voice”
This two articles are the third 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).

Dear Mr. Brown:

We are writing you this open letter to respond to some of the major claims that you make in your recent book, The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa (London: Bloomsbury, 2004)

When you were researching this book, our organization offered you our full cooperation. Yet, the final product of your work is quite disappointing to us.

We feel that you used material we provided to you in an intentionally misleading way, merely to provide a veneer of objectivity to a presentation that is not really fair and balanced. Indeed, when your major claims are examined, it turns out that your story may be incredible, but that it is far from true.

Perhaps it was a mistake for us to agree to help you in the first place. After all, we knew from the beginning that you may not simply have come to us as a journalist, but as a partisan in the Karmapa controversy. We knew that you were a sympathizer of Akong Tulku at Samye Ling in Scotland for decades, and that Akong, in turn, was for many years a strong supporter of Situ Rinpoche. However, we believed you, perhaps naively, when you said you wanted to hear our side of the story so you could write a fair and balanced account. We were to be proved quite wrong in this.


Old Wine in New Bottles

In your narrative, you present long-standing claims of Situ Rinpoche and his group as if you had just discovered them for yourself. Then you try to support these claims with the appearance of investigative reporting. Unfortunately, the numerous interviews that went into your research have failed to produce an account of the Karmapa controversy consistent with the minimum standards of journalistic objectivity.

Instead, at the end of all your effort, we feel that your reader is left with little more than the ramblings of a spiritual tourist so enamored of his guru that he does not hesitate to wear his heart on his sleeve. And your heart clearly belongs to Situ Rinpoche. To any reader familiar with the history of the Karmapa issue, your book displays its bias from top to bottom; from the major points you argue to the little details you like to note – For example, why take the trouble to describe Shamar Rinpoche (5’6′, for the record) as “short” without noting that the strikingly short Situ Rinpoche stands two or three inches shorter? We think this sort of thing would be amusing if it were not indicative of a persistent pattern of bias in your narrative.

We are concerned that the assumptions behind your presentation may not be clear to all readers. Newcomers to the controversy might be persuaded by the array of alleged facts that you offer to accept your conclusions. To clarify the issue for these readers, we feel compelled to respond to your three most serious claims and implications, namely that:

  • It would be wrong to test Situ Rinpoche’s alleged Karmapa prediction letter for authenticity;
  • Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches have a right to control Karmapa affairs and;
  • The two rinpoches have successfully taken control of the mechanism set up by the 16th Karmapa himself for managing his estate until a successor takes over, the Karmapa Charitable Trust.


Why Would It Be Wrong to Test the Prediction Letter?

First, Mr. Brown, you seem to accept uncritically the claim of Tai Situ Rinpoche’s group that using scientific means to determine the authenticity of Situ Rinpoche’s alleged Karmapa prediction letter would be inappropriate. Initially, you claim that it would be logistically difficult to get a reliable result in a forensic test, because the 16th Karmapa supposedly wrote the letter while in a weakened state just before his death and that no western experts would be able to accurately judge the nuances of Tibetan handwriting. Then you write:

But more critically, the demand for the letter to be forensically tested flew in the face of the most fundamental tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, the entire edifice of which is constructed on a nebulous architecture of prophecy, divination, and supernatural processes, which, by definition, preclude empirical proof. (p. 170)

Here, you seem to be arguing something quite shocking: that there are really no rational standards of truth within the system traditionally employed to recognize Tibetan Buddhist tulkus. We are not sure on what authority you came to this conclusion or whether you have even considered the enormity of such a claim. For example, would it not seem quite revolutionary to Buddhists of all stripes, whether Sri Lankan, Japanese or Tibetan, to set aside logic and reason when approaching anything to do with the dharma?

Buddhists around the world know that Buddha Shakyamuni repeatedly urged his followers to examine all aspects of his teaching for themselves. As the respected British nun Tenzin Palmo explains in terms that westerners can understand:

Now in certain religions, unquestioning faith is considered a desirable quality. But in the Buddhadharma, this is not necessarily so. The Buddha described the Dharma as ehi passiko, which means “come and see,” or “come and investigate,” not “come and believe.” An open, questioning mind is not regarded as a drawback to followers of the Buddhadharma. (Reflections on a Mountain Lake, p. 159)

Indeed, in one famous metaphor, the Buddha exhorted believers to test his teachings as a goldsmith would test the purity of gold – to burn and cut it to see whether it is pure.

Testing Situ Rinpoche’s alleged Karmapa letter would fall squarely within this tradition. Shamar Rinpoche has never suggested that forensic testing of this letter would determine whether the boy Orgyen Trinley is a genuine tulku. Rinpoche has also never suggested that any tests be conducted on the boy. Shamar Rinpoche merely wants to test the authenticity of the letter. Was it authored by the 16th Karmapa or not? This is not merely a reasonable question for Westerners, but a reasonable question for Tibetans as well.

Shamar Rinpoche is confident that the only obstacle to obtaining a meaningful result is Situ Rinpoche’s failure to produce the letter for testing. As far as the logistics of a forensic test go, Shamar Rinpoche and others who are familiar with the 16th Karmapa’s handwriting and poetic style believe that it would be quite easy to determine whether the letter is genuine or not. For his part, Rinpoche is sure that this letter was written by Tai Situ Rinpoche himself. It is not merely because the handwriting does not resemble that of the late Karmapa – but because the handwriting does resemble that of Situ Rinpoche. This would not be difficult for a forensic scientist to judge. And as to the objection that Karmapa’s handwriting might have deteriorated as he was dying and supposedly writing this letter, we might ask, in this case, would Karmapa’s handwriting “deteriorate” directly into the handwriting of Situ Rinpoche? This would be a curious condition indeed.

However, we should remember that Situ Rinpoche has always maintained that Karmapa gave him the letter a year prior to his death in 1981. At that time, Karmapa wrote many documents with no sign of any loss of writing-hand control. So the quality of the handwriting should not be a barrier to getting an accurate test result at all.

In the end, though, according to the clearly expressed wishes of the 16th Karmapa, we are sorry to say for you Mr. Brown, Situ Rinpoche has no legitimate standing in this issue of the letter. Situ Rinpoche may propose Karmapa candidates, but final recognition can only be given by Shamar Rinpoche, as the 16th Karmapa intended when he re-invested Shamar Rinpoche with the authority traditionally held by his position before the interregnum of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition, the 16th Karmapa set up the Karmapa Trust as the sole authority to run his administration after his death. Therefore, only Shamar Rinpoche and the Trust have the authority to accept or reject the authenticity of any prediction letter. The only “authority” Situ Rinpoche has is his possession of this letter. But then if he wrote it himself, it is natural that he would want to hold on to it and not allow it to be authenticated by outside experts.

We have a further cause for concern on this issue of the propriety of testing the letter for authenticity. We fear that this same specious argument could be applied in the future to other disputed items pertinent to our lineage, in particular, the truly religious objects in the Rumtek Monastery reliquary. According to the report of the commission of the Reserve Bank of India set up to make an inventory at Rumtek in 2002, dozens of relics were missing that Gyaltsab Rinpoche and his group could not account for. We are concerned that before another inventory can be conducted in the future, Gyaltsab Rinpoche and his group may try to replace these missing relics with duplicates. Then when Gyaltsab Rinpoche is confronted with questions, he may reply with this argument that holy objects cannot be tested, based on the precedent of Situ Rinpoche’s un-tested Karmapa letter. Obviously, we cannot allow such a precedent.

We are surprised that you would fall for such simplistic thinking, Mr. Brown. For centuries all major religions, including Buddhism, have had to validate prophecies and have had to test relics to discover whether they are authentic or not. If every alleged piece of the True Cross of Jesus, bone of the Prophet Muhammad or saying of the Buddha were uncritically accepted as authentic, then there would be confusion indeed. Just because Situ Rinpoche says that his letter is authentic, doesn’t make it so. Our religion does not prevent us from putting it to the test – quite the opposite, it requires us to do so. Until this letter is validated, Karma Kagyu believers should give this letter no credence.


Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches Had No Standing in Karmapa’s Administration

Second, Mr. Brown, you are far too indulgent towards the attempts of Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches to take over the Karmapa Charitable Trust and gain control of the 16th Karmapa’s administration including Rumtek Monastery. As two courts in India have decided so far, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches do not have any standing in Karmapa’s administration, either by law or by Tibetan tradition.

In the Tibetan tradition, there exists a kind of separation of powers between spiritual and administrative authority. On the spiritual side, the Karmapa has always been the highest authority in the Karma Kagyu lineage, similar to the Pope in Roman Catholicism. Thus, the Karmapas are spiritual guides for all Kagyu practitioners, including the highest lamas like Shamar, Situ, and, lower down, Gyaltsab.

On the administrative side, things are quite different, and the administrations of high lamas function separately from each other and from the administration of the Karmapas. Each lama governs his or her own monasteries and other properties under his control through his administration. The Karmapas have had their own administration, which has always been separate from the administration of other high lamas, including Situ and Gyaltsab. Situ Rinpoche led the Palpung Labrang while Gyaltsab led his own Chogong Labrang, named respectively after each rinpoche’s traditional monastic seat.

It is crucial to understand that traditionally the administration of high lamas have been fiercely independent. This meant that Karmapa had no jurisdiction over the administration of Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches. Likewise, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches had no jurisdiction over the administration of the Karmapas. What that means for today is that, just as a Karmapa cannot interfere in the running of Situ Rinpoche’s seat at Sherab Ling in Himachal Pradesh or Gyaltsab’s seat, Palchen Ling in Sikkim, so Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches cannot interfere with the seat of the Karmapas seat at Rumtek. A Tibetan saying illustrates this independence: it was said that the administration of one high lama could not “touch even a needle” of the property of another high lama’s administration.

Though they were all united spiritually in the Karma Kagyu lineage, for the purposes of administration, those of the Karmapas, the Situs and the Gyaltsabs were more like independent countries.

Of course, the administration of one high lama might invite other lamas and monks from other administrations for temporary visits, just as the US president might invite the British prime minister to a summit meeting in Washington for a few days. However, as a visitor, the British prime minister would not presume to walk the halls of the State Department and issue orders on foreign policy or drive over to the Pentagon and try to fire the Secretary of Defense. In the same way, under Tibetan tradition, visiting lamas were not expected to participate in their host monastery’s management without a specific invitation. If a visiting lama did try to participate in executive decisions without being asked, it would be considered outside interference.

Unfortunately, Mr. Brown, you fail to make clear that Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches were simply invited visitors at Rumtek, the seat of the 16th Karmapa, and that the 16th Karmapa had not invited either rinpoche to participate in the management of the Karmapa’s administration, including Rumtek Monastery.

This accords with historical tradition. Situ had never had any authority in the Karmapa administration. Gyaltsab’s case was a little different. Though the 5th Gyaltsab had been forced on Karmapa as regent by Gyaltsab’s cousin the 5th Dalai Lama, this arrangement lasted only for two Gyaltsab reincarnations. The 5th Gyaltsab lived only for eight years. The 10th Karmapa recognized the 6th Gyaltsab, but then removed him from the Karmapa’s administration and set up an independent administration for the Gyaltsabs. Since then the Gyaltsabs have had their own administration. In later centuries, these two administrations experienced conflict, and the two wound up in Tibetan courts. The 10th Gyaltsab, precursor to the current incarnation, even had a lawsuit against the Karmapa’s administration up to 1958, which was only ended by the invasion of the Chinese Red Army. The 16th Karmapa made no change to his administration’s independence from Situ and Gyaltsab during his lifetime.

After the death of the 16th Karmapa, the only legal way Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches could participate in managing the Karmapa’s administration was through Situ Rinpoche’s seat on the board of the Karmapa Trust, the body set up before his death by the 16th Karmapa to administer the Karmapa’s administration until authority could be passed to his successor.

But Situ Rinpoche knew the Karmapa Trust trustees would never give control of the Karmapa’s administration to him and Gyaltsab Rinpoche. You imply that this was because Shamar Rinpoche had stacked the board with his allies. Yet, you should know that the majority of the eight trustees on the board in the early 1990s were still those appointed by the late 16th Karmapa himself in 1963: JD Densapa and TS Gyaltsen, former officials of the Sikkim state government; Ashok Burman, a New Delhi businessman; Gyan Joti, a Kathmandu businessman; and the nephew of the 16th Karmapa, Topga Rinpoche. These trustees were all appointed when Shamar Rinpoche was only a child, so it should be clear that he could have had no influence over their selection. The only new trustees were Shamar, Situ, and Jamgon Rinpoches, all appointed by the other trustees in 1984.

So, since the trustees, except for Situ Rinpoche himself and the other two rinpoches, were all appointees of the late Karmapa, the board owed its allegiance to the late Karmapa’s wishes. This could not have pleased Situ Rinpoche, who has shown that he wanted to oppose the wishes of the 16th Karmapa. Just as the British prime minister would not expect the US Senate to give him control of the White House, Situ Rinpoche knew that the Karmapa Charitable Trust trustees would never authorize him and Gyaltsab as outsiders to take over Karmapa’s administration or Rumtek Monastery. Yet, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches were determined not to let law or tradition stand in the way of their plan to take Rumtek. They planned to do this by usurping control of the Karmapa Charitable Trust itself.


A Nearly Perfect Coup: Two Rinpoches, Rumtek and the Karmapa Trust

Thirdly, Mr. Brown, your discussion of the two rinpoches’ attempt to take over the Karmapa Trust is very misleading, because it gives the impression that Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches were successful. While they were successful in their coup d’état at Rumtek, they were unable to wrest control of the Karmapa Charitable Trust from its board of trustees. To this day the Trust functions according to the charter set up by the 16th Karmapa, despite Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches’ illegal seizure of Rumtek.

The complete story of how the Rumtek coup occurred is told in The Siege of Karmapa (New Delhi: Rumtek Sangha Duche, 2000). Though you cite this book in your bibliography, obviously you prefer to present a version of the events at Rumtek that contradicts the facts given in The Siege of Karmapa. How can readers know which of these conflicting accounts is the true story?

Your readers should know that the two court decisions handed down in India against Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches’ takeover of Rumtek mentioned above corroborate the account found in The Siege of Karmapa:

  • Situ Rinpoche wanted to take Rumtek to gain its assets, which he valued at $1.2 billion, according to Time Magazine;
  • Gyaltsab Rinpoche wanted to gain Rumtek to diminish the traditional authority of the Karmapas, and thus make himself the top Karma Kagyu lama in Sikkim;
  • The two rinpoches held two meetings with their allies at Samye Ling in Scotland in 1987 and 1989 respectively to plan a violent takeover of Rumtek; and
  • This group obtained assistance from the reportedly corrupt administration of the Sikkim State government under then Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari reportedly through questionable means.

Thus did the two Rinpoches carefully plan to storm their Bastille. But they did not want to tear it down, not literally at least. They wanted to take it for themselves.

Here, we only want to comment on one part of your discussion of the Rumtek coup here, Mr. Brown. You note that as soon as the two rinpoches had forcibly entered Rumtek and evicted its legal administrators, they immediately convened a meeting of their followers that would presume to make decisions for Rumtek and Karmapa’s administration.

Grandly, the rinpoches dubbed their group the “Kagyu International Assembly” Your description of this group makes it sounds like a kind of Karma Kagyu United Nations, with “representatives from KTD at Woodstock, from Samye Ling, Australia, Tibet, India, Nepal and Bhutan. Also present were representatives of the five Kagyu monasteries, six Buddhist organizations and eight Tibetan organizations in Sikkim.” (p. 212)

In actuality, this group was little more than a lynch mob of monks from Tai Situ Rinpoche’s own monastery Sherab Ling and two affiliated sub-monasteries in Kathmandu; monks from Kalu Rinpoche’s monastery near Darjeeling and Thrangu Monastery in Kathmandu, both friendly to Situ Rinpoche; a small contingent of followers from the USA and Australia; and local roughnecks with longstanding resentment of the 16th Karmapa, including a number of young toughs from the Lal Bazaar market in Gangtok. The sources of these “delegates” have been clearly documented in both The Siege of Karmapa (p. 43) book and in the two court cases in India.

Like revolutionary leaders at the barricades, the “president” of this assembly, a disgraced Sakya lama friendly to Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches, led the excited crowd in throaty support for one demand after another, including a request to the Dalai Lama to restore the ban on Shamar Rinpoche. But the day’s main goal was to gain legitimacy for Situ and Gyaltsab’s seizure of Rumtek. And that meant taking control over the organization that did have authority to manage Karmapa affairs, the Karmapa Charitable Trust:

In his opening address Tai Situ proposed that the present board of Directors of the Karmapa Charitable Trust be dissolved and a new board appointed in their place….Theoretically, only the trustees or the Karmapa himself, having attained the age of majority, could change the composition of the board. Nonetheless, Tai Situ’s resolution was passed by the delegates. (p. 212)

We find your language very unclear here, Mr. Brown. Given that Situ’s ad hoc group had no authority either by tradition or by law, the reader might wonder why it matters that it “passed” any “resolution” on any subject, not to mention the Karmapa Trust. But you never explain this point. Instead, you leave the reader with the impression that Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches and their followers had changed the course of history that day.

Well, Mr. Brown, we are sure you know how quickly history can return to its old course. On the following day, December 1, Sri Baphungpa, director of the Land Office of Sikkim where the charter for the Karmapa Trust was filed, ruled that Situ’s “delegates” had no right to make decisions concerning the Trust; that the actions of Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches’ meeting were illegal; and that, accordingly, the directors of the Trust would remain as before.

We can think of no reason why you would fail to mention this development, Mr. Brown, except that you have a bias in favor of Situ Rinpoche.

In any event, this setback must have been disappointing for Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches. But the two rinpoches did not let a lack of legitimacy interfere with their plans to take Rumtek, as the Indian courts and The Siege of Karmapa have explained. However, Mr. Brown, it appears that just as you chose to ignore the facts in The Siege of Karmapa, you also chose to omit mentioning these decisions of the Indian courts. In addition, we know that you also failed to talk to the trustees of the Karmapa Charitable Trust. If you wanted to write a complete story, we cannot understand why you would not have interviewed the trustees who exercise legal control over the Karmapa’s administration.

Not Fair, and Not Balanced

You will forgive us, Mr. Brown, for concluding that based on all your omissions and your generally one-sided presentation of events, you never really intended to tell the complete story of the Karmapa controversy. For example, we have compared your book’s discussion of your interviews with Shamar Rinpoche with our audio recordings of those same sessions, and have found that you omitted a great deal of pertinent information. Judging from your generous use of quotes from Situ Rinpoche, we suspect that you reported his views much more fully and faithfully.

However, though we feel that you did not give our views a fair hearing, we do not regret having cooperated with you. Your book represents a chance to address myths about the Karmapa controversy that have been circulating for years. Now, we hope it will be clear to you and your readers that:

  • There is no good reason, either in the Buddhist tradition or in the methodology of handwriting analysis, why Situ Rinpoche’s alleged Karmapa prediction letter should not be tested for authenticity using the best methods available today;
  • Both Tibetan tradition and Indian law agree that Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches do not have any authority over the affairs of the Karmapa administration; and
  • The Karmapa Charitable Trust remains the rightful administrator of the assets of the 16th Karmapa, held in trust for a successor chosen by Shamar Rinpoche, the only lama authorized by the late 16th Karmapa to recognize his reincarnation.

In any case, after the Supreme Court of India announces its decision in July of this year, its findings will be released to the world. We hope this decision will help restore peace to our 800-year-old lineage and help heal the wounds in our sangha for the benefit of all. Meanwhile, we plan to disseminate this letter as widely as possible, so that readers may decide for themselves whether your book presents a complete and balanced account of the history of the Karmapa issue.

Lama Karma Wangchuk

International Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization

Another open letter concerning some other issues in Mick Browns book by Nerraj KC