Karmapa Controversy

Karmapa ControversyThe Karmapa lineage is the most ancient tulku lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, pre-dating the Dalai Lama lineage by more than two centuries. The lineage is an important one as the Karmapa is traditionally the head of the Karma Kagyu school, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Unfortunately the recognition of the 17th Karmapa has become mired in controversy. Since the death of the 16th Karmapa in 1981 two different candidates have come forward, neither of which has gained universal recognition as the true Karmapa.



There are two claimants – Urgyen Trinley Dorje (also spelled Ogyen Trinley Dorje) and Thaye Dorje- each supported by a number of important lamas from the Kagyu lineage. Both have already been enthroned as 17th Karmapa and perform ceremonial and ritual duties. As of late 2005, they have not met.

This situation has led to deep division among Kagyu followers all over the world. Each side accuses the other of lying and wrongdoing. It is therefore very hard to produce an objective description of the events, because the most important developments are known only from conflicting accounts by those involved.

Recognition of the Karmapa

As with any other lineage of tulkus, the question of recognizing the new incarnation is crucial. Sometimes, all concerned parties are sure that a particular child is indeed the new incarnation of that particular master. Sometimes not. This is what has happened in the case of the 17th Karmapa.

Karmapas have often been self-recognizing. That means that many incarnations (seven out of sixteen) claim very early in life to be Karmapa, recognize associates and colleagues of the previous incarnation, and have been generally remarkable for their age (see history of previous incarnations). Also, each Karmapa has left indications leading to his next re-birth, often in the form of a letter. In such letters, indications regarding the location and parentage of the next incarnation were included, though usually in a poetic form that is difficult to decipher.

However, the closest associates of the previous incarnation play a crucial role in the process of recognizing the next Karmapa. After all, it is they – adult and fully realized Buddhist masters – who have been closely associated with the previous incarnation and will have to raise and teach the new one.

The process of recognition has involved many different lamas since the first recognition in the early 1200’s. And those who recognized the incarnation are not necessarily the ones who become his main disciples or received the predictions of his rebirth. Of the past Karmapas, Situ Rinpoche has recognized the 8th, 9th, and the 16th Karmapa and, along with Gyaltsap Rinpoche, the 14th. Gyaltsap Rinpoche (his name means “regent”) recognized the 7th Karmapa, the 13th, and with Situ Rinpoche, the 14th Karmapa. Two centuries ago, the recognition of Shamarpa Rinpoche’s incarnation was blocked as a result of rivalry with the ruling Gelug school, who accused the 10th Shamarpa of having a part in the Nepalese invasion of Tibet and drove him out of the country. He was banned from public life and his reincarnations were not allowed to be officially recognized (The ban was lifted in 1963 by the current Dalai Lama at the request of the 16th Karmapa). Shamar Rinpoche has recognized the 6th and 10th Karmapa. The other incarnations were self-declared or recognized by lamas outside the six main reincarnate lineages closely associated with the Karmapas.

For more information about this, consult two books published before the controversy and while the 16th Karmapa was still alive: Karmapa, the Black Hat Lama of Tibet and The History of the Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet in references.

Split recognition of the present Karmapa

Of the two claimants, Urgyen Trinley Dorje has been recognized by Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche and confirmed by the 14th Dalai Lama and the government of the People’s Republic of China.

Other prominent Kagyu lamas who accept the recognition of Urgyen Trinley Dorje include H.E. the Fourth Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, H.E. the Eleventh Pawo Rinpoche, the Ninth Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, the Ninth Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the Third Kalu Rinpoche, the Seventh Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and his Nalandabodhi organization, the Twelfth Surmang Trungpa Rinpoche, the Seventh Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, the Third Tenga Rinpoche, the Venerable Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, the Venerable Bokar Rinpoche, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, the Venerable Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche (abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra), H.E. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and his organization, Shambhala International, the Venerable Drupon Rinpoche, and Lama Norlha Rinpoche, among others.

The head of the Sakya school, H.H. Sakya Trizin and the present head of of the Nyingma school, H.H. Mindoling Trichen Rinpoche also recognised Urgyen Trinley Dorje as the present 17th Karmapa.

The other claimant, Trinley Thaye Dorje, was recognized by Shamar Rinpoche. Other lamas who accept the recognition of Thaye Dorje include H.E. Beru Khentse Rinpoche, the Venerable Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche, the Venerable Jigme Rinpoche (brother to Shamar Rinpoche), and the Venerable Shangpa Rinpoche, among others. Lama Ole Nydahl and his Diamond Way organization are prominent supporters of Thaye Dorje in the West.

For followers on both sides of this controversy, the issue is painful. Both sides pray that the rightful Karmapa may be able to do his dharmic duties and teachings. The teachers on both sides urge their students to continue their practice sincerely and try not to get too involved in the politics and remain compassionate and forgiving and as open minded as possible. Also, Karma Kagyu teachers say that the future actions and spiritual realization of the claimants will show clearly which one is the real re-incarnation of the 16th Karmapa.

Urgyen Trinley Dorje

Urgyen Trinley Dorje was born in 1985 to a nomadic family in eastern Tibet. At age seven, he was formally enthroned at Tsurphu monastery, the traditional seat of the Karmapas in Tibet. In late December of 1999, he eluded his communist Chinese minders, who prevented him from undertaking most of his traditional studies and teaching activities, and escaped over the Himalaya mountains to exile in India. He celebrated his eighteenth birthday on June 26, 2003.

Claims by his supporters

After the death of the 16th Karmapa, his four ‘heart-sons’ — Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche — had agreed to form a council of regents to take joint responsibility for the spiritual affairs of the Karma Kagyu lineage, alternating as the regent for the Karmapa every three years.

Supporters of Urgyen Trinley Dorje claim that his birth and parentage are consistent with the prediction by Chogyur Lingpa, who, it is claimed, had prophetic visions of various events in the lives of the 14th through the 21st Karmapas. Many believe that Lingpa’s statement that the minds of Tai Situpa and Karmapa “are inseparably joined as one” refers to the 17th Karmapa and current Tai Situ Rinpoche. His opponents say however, that one of the former Karmapas died at an early age, before his actual enthronement. Hence, this prediction was already fulfilled with the 16th Karmapa, who actually was the 17th, even though only 16 had been officially enthroned. This claim may sound odd at the first moment, but it is actually supported by Chogyur Lingpa’s life story, where he explains exactly this, namely that one Karmapa died too early to be enthroned, and that as to Chogyur Lingpa’s view, he needs to be included when enlisting the Karmapas. As Chogyur Lingpa is also the source of the prediction, this is indeed a proper argument. Furthermore, it also holds true that the described event of the prediction took place between the then Karmapa and Situpa during the life of the 16th Karmapa.

Thrangu Rinpoche gives further details of the two prediction letters. The first letter was written by the 16th Karmapa when he was in Tibet. After his arrival in Sikkim, he asked a printing company to print copies of this two-page letter and many had the chance to read this letter. The second letter was written in Rumtek, Sikkim and this time 50 copies were made. Both letters mention the return of the 16th reincarnation to Tibet. However, according to Thrangu Rinpoche, it is not these two letters, but a prediction document that Shamar Rinpoche wanted to be forensically examined. Furthermore, even though followers of Urgyen Trinley try to make it look different, both claimants were born in Tibet and so the prediction about the return to Tibet within these two letters would be fulfilled by both claimants.

In January of 1981 the 16th Karmapa gave the 12th Tai Situpa an amulet with a brocade cover, and said, “This is your protection amulet. In the future, it will confer great benefit.” In 1992 Tai Situpa opened the amulet and found that it contained the disputed prediction letter. This letter said that the Karmapa was to be reborn “to the north, in the east of the land of snow.” This was interpreted at the March 1992 meeting of the council of the four regents to mean that he would be reborn in eastern Tibet (north of Rumtek). The letter is reproduced.

In late 1999 Urgyen Trinley Dorje decided that the restrictions placed on him by the PRC government at Tsurphu Monastery limited his ability to teach his disciples and receive teachings from lineage masters. He made a daring escape over the Himalayas in the middle of winter, evading the Chinese authorities and making his way through Nepal and on to Dharamsala arriving January 5, 2000. Further details of the escape were given in a . See also Music in the Sky: The Life Art, and Teaching of the 17th Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje by Michele Martin for a detailed account of the planning and the actual escape.

Thaye Dorje

Thaye Dorje was born on the 6th of May 1983 in Lhasa, Tibet. His father is Mipham Rinpoche, the reincarnation of a very important lama of the Nyingma school. In October 1986 Chobgye Tri Rinpoche, senior Sakya master and head of one of the three Sakya lineages, contacted the Shamarpa and informed him about a dream he had had and about a relative of his from Lhasa who brought a picture of a child who reportedly and repeatedly announced that he was the Karmapa. In 1988 Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche was sent to bring more information about the child. Later an unnamed lama was sent to meet with the family and the boy without revealing the real purpose of his visit. Upon meeting with the emissary the boy promptly said “You were sent here for me.” This, along with other evidence has convinced the Shamarpa that this boy is indeed the reincarnation of the late 16th Karmapa. In March 1994 Thaye Dorje escaped with his family from Tibet and travelled to New Delhi where he was formally recognized during a welcoming ceremony. He took monastic ordination from Chobgye Tri Rinpoche and is at present undergoing a very intensive education under the guidance of Shamar Rinpoche, also focussing a lot on his studies under the guidance of extraordinary teachers such as Prof. Sempa Dorje, Khenpo Chödrak Rinpoche and others. He also travels extensively to the East and the West, not only impressing people with his extraordinary charisma, but also with his way of propounding the Dharma in a very straight and uncompromising way.

Claims by his supporters

Thaye Dorje’s supporters claim that traditionally it was the Shamarpa who recognized the Karmapa, and therefore no additional recognition is required or even valid. Supporters point out that Karma Pakshi, the 2nd Karmapa, predicted “future Karmapas shall manifest in two Nirmanakaya forms.” The 3rd Karmapa recognized the 1st Shamarpa as the fulfillment of this prophecy, giving the Shamar incarnates a special relationship with the Karmapas. This is supported among others by old Kagyu literature where one frequently finds the expression of the 2 Karmapas, black and red hat. Also, when refering to former reincarnation of the Shamarpa, these are often called Karmapa and can only differentiated from former Karmapa reincarnations by their name.

Supporters also accuse Tai Situpa of forging the letter ostensibly written by the 16th Karmapa and containing the clues about his new incarnation. They have requested that the letter be verified by independent experts including graphologists. Tai Situ has so far refused to allow this.

Some Thaye Dorje supporters also point out that the Dalai Lama’s recognition is not necessary for the Karmapa and this was in fact verified in the context of a law case in New Zealand by Prof. Geoffrey Samuel. At the same time, Tomek Lehnert’s book claims the Dalai Lama was tricked into recognizing Urgyen Trinley by Tai Situpa who told him that all four Kagyu regents agreed he was the right candidate.

Finally, some supporters of Thaye Dorje claim that Tai Situpa and Urgyen Trinley are puppets in the hands of the government of communist China, which they claim planed to use Urgyen Trinley to tighten its grip on Tibet. According to them China had the plan to identify its chosen Karmapa as spiritual leader of Tibet after the current Dalai Lama passes away.

Ole Nydahl says that time will show which of the two contenders is indeed the Karmapa, as each candidate’s actions will confirm whether he is the reincarnation or not. He and other lamas that support Thaye Dorje have called for the two young men to meet and discuss this between themselves, but so far this has not occurred.

Recent developments

Control of Rumtek monastery, which was the seat of the 16th Karmapa in exile, is hotly contested between its rival claimants. In 1961 the 16th Karmapa established the Karmapa Charitable Trust. Urgyen Trinley’s followers claim that the trust was solely established for the sake of seeing to the welfare of the Karmapa’s followers, to provide funds for the maintenance of the monastery, for the monks medical fees, and so forth. Whether or not the Karmapa Charitable Trust is entitled to the properties of Rumtek is being disputed in Indian courts.

Recommended by supporters of Thaye Dorje

  • (Thaye Dorje)
  • (Homepage of HH Shamar Rinpoche)
  • – information on the controversy
  • A detailed site in French and English, but not updated after 2001.

Media coverage


Publications before controversy

  • Karmapa, the Black Hat Lama of Tibet by Nik Douglas and Meryl White (1975) ISBN 0718901878
  • The History of the Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet by Karma Thinley (1980)

ISBN 1570626448

Recommended by supporters of Urgyen Trinley Dorje

  • Music in the Sky: The Life, Art, and Teaching of the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, Michele Martin. Snow Lion Publications, 2003. ISBN 1559391952. Written by a Tibetan translator, who lived for years in Nepal and India and also made many trips to Tibet. The book also gives a generous sampling of his poetry and teachings as well as the stories of the 16 previous Karmapas.
  • The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet’s 17th Karmapa, Mick Brown, Bloomsbury 2004, ISBN 0747571619. This book covers the life of the Urgyen Trinley Dorje and clarifies the politics surrounding his recognition.
  • Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation, Lea Terhune, Wisdom Publications, 2004. ISBN 0861711807. Provides some background material to the present situation as well as an account of Urgyen Trinley Dorje’s life. She’s a student of Tai Situ Rinpoche.
  • His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje, Ken Holmes. Altea Publishing 1995, ISBN 0952455544. Details of previous Karmapas as well.
  • Wrestling the Dragon: In search of the Boy Lama Who Defied China, Gaby Naher, Random House, Sydney, 2004, ISBN 1740512790. As stated in the book itself, this account is fiction mixed with fact. It is focused on the author’s meeting with Urgyen Trinley Dorje.

Recommended by supporters of Thaye Dorje

  • Rogues in Robes: An Inside Chronicle of a Recent Chinese-Tibetan Intrigue in the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Diamond Way Buddhism, Tomek Lehnert, Blue Dolphin Publishing, 2000, ISBN 1577330269. The author is a student of Thaye Dorje.
  • Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today, Erik D. Curren, Alaya Press, 2005. The book places the controversy in the context of sectarian conflict between the Karma Kagyu and the Dalai Lama’s government in Tibet and in exile. The author is a student of Shamar Rinpoche. ISBN 0977225305 Controverse Karmapa
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