Who's the real Karmapa? Debate revives

The controversy around the current Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, following the stacks of foreign currency found at a monastery he controls, may well strengthen the claim of his rival Trinley Thaye Dorje to be recognized as the 'real' Karmapa.

A dispute over who should be anointed the 17th Karmapa erupted immediately after the 16th Karmapa's death in 1981, with both Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Trinley Thaye Dorje claiming the honour. Both of them at the time were based in China. Since then Trinley Thaye Dorje escaped to India in March 1994 followed by Ogyen Trinley Dorje in December 1999.

Indian authorities, who had begun to regard Trinley Thaye Dorje as the real Karmapa following his defection, have thus always been suspicious of Ogyen Trinley Dorje who claimed to have made a dramatic escape from China five years later. Ogyen Trinley Dorje has been under heavy surveillance and barred from foreign travel till 2008 when he made his first and only trip abroad – to the US. Trinley Thaye Dorje, on the contrary, has been traveling abroad freely, including making seven trips to Hong Kong.

Within the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, however, it is Ogyen Trinley Dorje who has been recognized by many more authorities. His legitimacy took a great leap forward when he was accepted as the real Karmapa by the Dalai Lama in 1992. Yet because of the dispute Ogyen Trinley Dorje has not allowed – nor has his rival – to don the legendary 'black hat' a Karmapa is entitled to. The black hat, said to have mystical powers, lies locked up at the Rumtek monastery in Gangtok. Neither claimant for the Karmapa title has been allowed to visit Sikkim so far.

Besides, one key authority within the sect, the Sharmar Rinpoche, still insists that Trinley Thaye Dorje is the genuine article.

Sharmar Rinpoche has spared no effort to promote Trinley Thaye Dorje, including meeting the Dalai Lama last August to end the dispute over the Karmapa title. The attempt may well get a fresh fillip following Ogyen Trinley Dorje's recent troubles. "Other claimants to the Karmapa title appear to be taking advantage of the situation," said Tenzin Tsundue, Tibetan poet and activist.


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