Not so easy to say who is Karmapa

by Erik Curren, Lexington, VA (USA), The Buddhist Channnel, Aug 22, 2005

I refer to the letter "Thaye Dorje is not Karmapa" by David McCarthy, August 17, 2005. As the author of a forthcoming book on the dispute (The Buddha’s Not Smiling, Alaya Press, November 2005), I would like to address McCarthy's point that Thaye Dorje is not the Karmapa and that the Dalai Lama has been clear about this.

First, Tibetans have been arguing this point for more than ten years, so it is not easy to say whether one boy is certainly the Karmapa or not.

Secondly, the Dalai Lama has recognized a competing candidate, but this has not settled the issue for all Tibetans. Many Karmapa followers accept the Dalai Lama?s political and moral authority over exiled Tibetans, but reject any role for him spiritually over their school, since he comes from another religious school, the Gelugpa. And though the Dalai Lama is referred to as the "spiritual leader of Tibet," many Tibetans see this title as a formality that confers no authority over the four relig ious schools of Tibet outside his own, just as calling the US president the "leader of the free world" gives him no role in governing France or Germany, for example.

Many Karmapa followers call on the Dalai Lama to respect their religious freedom and human rights, and stay out of the dispute. Various court decisions in India and elsewhere have supported their contentions. Yet, others in the Karmapa's Karma Kagyu school, including supporters of the Dalai Lama's candidate, do call on the Dalai Lama?s authority. Generally, the western press has also been sympathetic to this view. Quite confusing!

It is wrong to call either candidate in this unfortunate controversy a "hoax" or to denounce any group of their supporters as "fraudulent." Respected lamas and intelligent people have taken both sides and the dispute is too complex to settle with snap judgments.

Erik Curren
Author, "The Buddha's Not Smiling"
Forthcoming, November 2005
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