Karmapa controversy

The 16th Karmapa’s heart incident

The first signs of a conflict brewing within the lineage appeared directly after Karmapa passed away in 1981. Forty-five days later, on the December 20, 1981, the official cremation ceremony brought several thousand of Karmapa’s followers to his headquarters. During this significant event, while His Holiness’ body-which had shrunk to the size of a baby-was consumed by the shooting flames, suddenly a “blue-black ball” rolled out of an opening in the pyre. It came to rest on the northern side of the cremation place, towards Tibet, where Lopon Chechoo-Karmapa’s confidant-and two other lamas were standing.

The unusual phenomenon created a good deal of excitement and speculation. Nobody knew exactly what to make of the mysterious object, and the puzzled lamas ran for advice to Kalu Rinpoche, the oldest and by assumption the wisest in the gathering. After carefully examining the intricate “ball,” the senior Kalu nodded in knowledgeable approval but remained as perplexed as the rest of the illustrious assembly. Everybody exchanged bewildered glances and helplessly waited for some answer. By now people thought the object resembled a human organ, so Lopon Chechoo had it placed high on the side of the Stupa.

At that moment, Situ Rinpoche emerged from the adjacent room with offerings to be burnt in the fire. He noticed the commotion but obviously had no clue as to what was happening. Seeing the baffled faces around him and the round lump high on a steel plate, he took the plate in his hands and, amid much pomp and circumstance, disappeared with his new possession into the main shrine room. Later that night, operating on a less ceremonial note, he quietly transferred the object to his private quarters where he kept it closeted away.

Three days later, a big Kagyu conference took place in Rumtek. As senior lamas of the lineage sat next to each other in the hall of the institute, Situ Rinpoche rose from his chair and addressed the distinguished gathering of traditional Tibetan Rinpoches in English. He first disclosed that what he had secured in his room was, in actual fact, Karmapa’s heart. “The heart flew from the north door of the cremation pyre and landed in my palm,” he proudly confessed, exposing, for everyone to admire, his right palm. “It now belongs to me,” he concluded. He then announced he would build a two-to-three-foot stupa of solid gold in Sherab Ling, his monastery in the western Himalayas, to house the precious relic. The lamas looked impassively at Situpa talking to them in English, unable to make out a single word of his speech. The few Westerners present gaped at the speaker in astonishment. With satisfaction, Tai Situ scanned the silent assembly and sat back in his seat, not showing the slightest inclination to render his historic message into Tibetan.

“Rinpoche, you should speak in Tibetan,” Shamarpa’s voice resounded in the packed hall. Not informed about the meeting, Shamar tulku had arrived halfway through his peer’s sermon, just in time to hear how the heart had sailed from the pyre into Situpa’s palm. He must have at once realized that Tai Situ was planning to carry away the precious relic to Sherab Ling and nobody was going to stop him. The elderly lamas, having been offered an explanation in a foreign tongue, were kept nicely in the dark. With no time to lose, Shamarpa kindly invited his peer to repeat in Tibetan what he had stated only a moment before in English. Visibly ill at ease, Tai Situ rose for the second time. “Shamar Rinpoche has rightly reminded me that I forgot the Tibetan,” he acknowledged and recounted the story in his native dialect.

Enter Damcho Yongdu, the combative, Rumtek’s old general secretary. Situpa’s sudden rise to custodian of Karmapa’s heart was as much news to him as it clearly was to the rest of the assemblage. Less than impressed by the biased version of events from the cremation ceremony, and in no mood to let the unusual relic slip out of Rumtek, Damcho Yongdu boldly declared that the heart had not flown into anybody’s palm, definitely not into Situpa’s. He then rallied his forces to challenge Sherab Ling’s bid. Speaking on behalf of the Rumtek administration, he pledged funds to erect-if need be-a five-foot gold stupa. As caretaker of Karmapa’s seat, he firmly demanded that all items that have to do with the welfare and future prosperity of the lineage be left, in keeping with His Holiness’ wishes, in Rumtek. Without waiting for any more surprises, the old man lead a procession to Situpa’s room and quickly removed the relic from the shelf. His resolute action, clear reasoning, and decisive outbidding of Situpa’s offer carried the day. Karmapa’s heart was allowed to remain in Rumtek, awaiting the promised gold stupa to house it. As it later turned out, Damcho Yongdu made good on his promise. Today, a stupa of solid gold-though only a foot high-rules over Rumtek from the first floor of the monastery.

What was disturbing about the whole incident was not so much the tug of war over Karmapa’s heart-this was understandable in view of the extraordinary nature of the relic-but the conscious distortion of facts adopted by a venerable lineage holder. Situ Rinpoche’s version of how the relic came into his hands was, at best, a vague and murky rendering of the truth and had certainly stretched the goodwill and imagination of the participants in the ceremony to the limit. For as eyewitnesses put it years later, the only reason why the heart came into Situpa’s hands was simply because he snatched it from the side of the stupa and scooted off with it unchallenged. At that time, however, nobody dared confront a high lama with a lie. It was not yet possible

Even more disturbing was the fact that Situpa’s backers allowed this visible deceit to grow unhindered. After years of intense campaigning and agitation, the story of Situpa prophetically receiving and carrying away the relic would achieve the status of holy proof that he was indeed the senior peer of the lineage, selected by Karmapa himself to bring forth his next incarnation.

Having failed to get hold of Karmapa’s heart, Situ Rinpoche requested to take possession of Karmapa’s practice book instead. He reasoned that his monastery needed a special blessing from his teacher and a book that Karmapa used to read every day was just the thing he had been looking for. This time, the old secretary was on full guard. As years later Shamar Rinpoche would disclose in an interview with the author of this book, Damcho Yongdu strongly confronted Situpa’s new fancy. “Rinpoche, don’t give him the book,” the old man argued to Shamarpa. “He is going to produce a false prediction letter about the next Karmapa out of it.” The charge sounded largely overdone, if not totally insane, but, nonetheless, Tai Situ got nowhere with his lobbying and, eventually, had to leave Rumtek empty-handed. Karmapa’s belongings stayed at his seat.

The immediate months and years that succeeded Karmapa’s death brought a sense of profound grief and loss to his students. At the same time, their teacher’s departure became a source of great energy and self-reliance for some in the West. On the eastern front, however, despite the pervading feeling of sorrow, several of the Rinpoches began, slowly and cautiously, to break ranks with Rumtek. Although they owed their fame outside Tibet to Karmapa, the longing for their old country proved a stronger force than reason and loyalty to their teacher. When looking back, they could still recall how every high tulku-absolute master of his monastery-used to hold sway over neighbouring valleys and often reigned undisputed over whole regions of the country. Their present condition was but a shadow of their former splendor. Following the urge to revive such small kingdoms, the émigré lamas started to lay plans for their own hierarchical organizations in exile. Those designs must have been born as much out of a desperate yearning for the old order as out of a basic ignorance about the new realities outside Tibet.

High and low, young and old, most Tibetan lamas displayed this blind tendency to duplicate their former power structures in the new, foreign environment. At the same time, they showed an irrepressible appetite for portions of each other’s work. Case in point here were the ill-devised attempts of several Kagyu teachers to cut a piece out of Karmapa’s cake while ardently claiming to work in his name. This was first exemplified by the learned Thrangu Rinpoche who established his own Thrangu-Ling groups in Hong Kong and Malaysia.


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