Disunity threatens the Dalai Lama’s timeless authority
by Michael Binyon, Times Online, June 5, 2009
Buddhism exerts influence far beyond its home in Tibet, to the West and East. Uncharacteristic leadership questions now challenge its reputation
London, UK -- The news that a Tibetan monk, chosen as a child by the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of a spiritual leader, has thrown off his robes and renounced his vows has caused consternation among some Buddhists.
Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche has changed his name, denounced the Buddhist order that revered him as a man of spiritual authority and is now studying film in Madrid. He has renounced the strict life of meditation and prayer that traditionally isolates lamas away from the hurly-burly of modern life and reportedly now attends discos. To some, this will be a shock. But it underlines the extraordinary hold that one country, Tibet, has on Buddhists throughout the world and the many strands of faith and monastic traditions that are found there.
For centuries thousands of monasteries have held sway across the vast mountainous plateau. Tibetan Buddhism has now spread far beyond its cradle, however. The flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959, the resistance to Chinese rule, growing global interest in the monasteries and the setting up of Buddhist teaching centres in the West have put the spotlight on Tibet. And the key question, with far-reaching political and spiritual consequences, is: will Tibetan Buddhism retain unity after the Dalai Lama?
In recent months the issue has taken on a sharper edge. China’s confrontation with the exiled symbol of Tibetan identity has become more intense, with each side accusing the other of bad faith. The Dalai Lama has begun to speak of retiring and anointing a successor during his lifetime — a break, to many, with the tradition of reincarnation and an attempt to forestall Chinese attempts to install a political puppet.
Curiously, London could play a role in deciding the future of Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s choice as his successor appears to have fallen on Ogyen Trinley Dorje, a 23-year-old Tibetan who has been identified by his supporters as the 17th Karmapa, the so-called Black Hat lama (named because of the ceremonial black crown presented by the Ming dynasty emperor Yunglo). The Karmapa is the third-highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism and is head of the Karma Kagyu school, one of the four main “lineages” in Tibet. The identity of the true claimant of the Karmapa crown, however, is the subject of great debate.
At the age of 14, Ogyen Trinley Dorje slipped out of a window of Tolung Tsurphu monastery in central Tibet and fled across the mountains to Nepal and then India. He arrived at the exile headquarters of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, northern India, in January 2000. Conveniently, he also appears to have Beijing’s backing. Certainly, he has spoken of his admiration for Chinese culture and a willingness to co-operate with China. Speaking Mandarin fluently and an avid watcher of Chinese films, he told the BBC earlier this year that he hoped the political issue of Tibet could be resolved peacefully. He has backed the Dalai Lama’s policy of seeking greater autonomy rather than independence.
The Chinese have long refused to recognise the man seen as the second most senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama, identified as a boy by the Dalai Lama himself. Instead, they detained him and appointed their own candidate.
But there is a major difficulty to any smooth transfer of authority to Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje: the Tibetan community is deeply split over his claim to the Karmapa throne. A large number are loyal instead to the handsome and charismatic Trinley Thaye Dorje, a 26-year-old who was recognised as the 17th Karmapa after a secret visit to Lhasa by a recognised spiritual leader when the boy appeared to him in a dream in 1988. He left Tibet in 1994.
Both have begun to travel widely in the West, visiting monasteries overseas and building up their profiles. And both will, by chance, be in Britain this summer. Were they to meet and settle their differences, Tibetan Buddhism could enjoy a return to a unity and tranquility that it has not known for years.
For now, the disputed succession has opened a damaging rift in Tibetan Buddhism. The Supreme Court in India has backed Thaye Dorje’s claim. There have been reports of violence between their followers and at the monastery where the Black Hat is stored — a terrible blow to those who see ahimsa, or non-violence, as the central tenet of Buddhism.
Thaye Dorje is less political than his rival, but is very much a modern lama, who lives in Kalimpong, India. He had a Western education from English and Australian tutors and an introduction to Western philosophy. Approachable, media-friendly and with his own website (in which he even said that his favourite group was Black Eyed Peas), he is making another European tour this summer, visiting London and Manchester from July 27-31. While here — his third visit to Britain — he will be hosted by two organisations, the Dechen Community and Diamond Way Buddhism, and will expound to his followers The Way of a Bodhisattva.
The details of the visit here by Karmapa Orgyen Trinley have not been announced, but it is understood that it may come at the same time. He will probably go to the Samye Ling Monastery, on the banks of the River Esk, which claims to be the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West.
Traditionally, the Kagyu school has steered clear of politics. The two rival Karmapa claimants have not met face to face and have been careful not to speak ill of each other. Thaye Dorje, in his interviews, wishes enlightenment to all, including Orgyen Trinley and the Dalai Lama. Were a meeting between the two to be to be engineered, many of the current quarrels might fall away.
The dispute over their spiritual authority is as arcane as it is complex. It goes back to the authenticity of a letter left, according to tradition, by the 16th Karmapa to predict his successor to one of the senior Kagyu lamas. According to many commentators, the script in this, which appears to support Ogyen Trinley, was quite different from his normal writing.
The comparison perhaps can be made with the divisions within Christianity that often turn on some small point of history or dogma. A similar dispute arose at the time of the eighth Karmapa in the 16th century. Like Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism can point to an exceptionally rich heritage of rulers, poets, scholars, artists and ascetics.