The Karmapas: The Murmur of the Black Hats

by Karma Wangdu on 20 October, 2015


What could be going on in this seven-year-old boy’s head as, perched astride a white horse, he enters Tsurphu monastery in central Tibet under a shower of white scarves?

We are in June 1992, and the Karmapa has returned home after 33 years of exile. In his new incarnation at least. This boy, who was to don the title of the 17th Karmapa and be named Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was born in 1985 in a remote camp in the Kham province of eastern Tibet to a nomad family which raised yaks, sheep and goats. He was such a happy and adventurous child that his brothers and sisters called him Apo Gaga, “happy birth”.

Then one day, lamas paid a visit to the monastery where his parents had sent him to study along with his elder brother. Before his own death a decade earlier in New York, the 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje, had left written indications regarding the one who would continue the line by assuming the title that means “victorious embodiment of enlightened activity”. This lineage has continued uninterrupted for the past nine centuries on the roof of the world.

Much has transpired since Düsum Khyenpa (1110-1193), “he who knows the three times”, had a dream in which he received a black crown woven by the Dakinis (celestial messengers) from their hair. Three centuries later, a devout and visionary emperor of China offered a silk replica to the 5th Karmapa. The wearer of this crown was called chanakpa or “black hat”, another name for the Karmapas.



The first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa, traces his spiritual heritage to an ancient Buddha (Jina) with a blue body and a radiant face called Vajradhara (Dorje Chang in Tibetan), the “diamond holder”, who unites in himself limitless compassionate action (karuna) and wisdom (prajna).

Tradition has it that this Buddha appeared to the Indian yogi Tilopa and transmitted the “mahamudra” ritual, the great seal which, much later, would be at the heart of the Karma-Kagyu school. Tilopa transmitted the oral tradition to another yogi, Naropa, who in turn passed it on to a rough Tibetan peasant-mystic, Marpa. Marpa was so keen about his spiritual quest that he left his home several times to study at the feet of Indian masters. After receiving the knowledge from Naropa, Marpa returned to his farm to help “awaken” Milarepa, the cotton clad one, whose Hundred Thousand Songs embellishes world literature.

Milarepa’s chief disciple and spiritual successor was a young doctor from the Dagpo region who was called Gampopa after he founded a monastery on the flanks of Gampo mountain. It was he who would give shape to a spiritual order based on the oral (Tibetans say “murmured”) teachings, the rituals and most importantly, the compassionate action for the benefit of all beings: the Kagyupa tradition*.

To ensure the school’s continued existence, the first Karmapa decided to designate his own future rebirth, the body that would house his spirit (tulku, see box on page 52), by leaving precise, written indications that would help identify him. The reformers of the Kadampa (the Virtuous) and the Gelugpa schools adopted this method for choosing successors of the Dalai Lama as well as other major Lamas including the Panchen Lama.



Düsum Khyenpa’s first reincarnation, Karma Pakshi (1204-1283), had Kublai Khan, the future Emperor of China, as disciple. The relation was broken for a while when the Lama chose to support his elder brother Mongka. They reconciled when the all-conquering emperor came to the Lama and implored: “Master, remember me, pray for me, bless me.” Was he then the first to use the expression “Karmapa Chenno”, still used today by the Kagyu community?

The following three Karmapas were all close to Chinese emperors, without being submissive in the least. On the contrary, they were rather demanding, successfully obtaining pardons and commuting death sentences from their imperial students – Mongol emperors were not gentle with their Han subjects. All the Karmapas exhibited one distinguishing constant: the refusal of temporal power in spite of repeated offers from China. No doubt this explains why the link between spiritual master and sponsor disciple (Chö-yon) continued unbroken as long as the Ming and Qing dynasties retained the imperial throne.

By nature Karmapas shunned all conflict, always looking for a compromise. It is said that the 5th Karmapa, Dechin Chegpa (1384-1415), was so gentle that he could not reprimand his disciples as that might discourage them, he would appear in their dreams in order to complete his teachings. All lived in the greatest simplicity and accepted with equanimity both the honors and titles conferred on them by Peking and the reversals of fortune engineered by court intrigues. But it was not always so, and certain “regents” had the Karmapa accompany them, against their will and with Mongol intervention, on more or less warlike adventures, sometimes even against the new school which had come to power since 1635, represented by the Dalai Lama.

This rivalry, however violent, did not endure. The closest encounter took place when the itinerant camp of the 10th Karmapa, Chöying Dorje (1604-1674) was besieged by Güshi Khan, an ally of the 5th Dalai Lama. It is said that the Karmapa survived only by taking flight, literally, in the form of a bird. But the adventure had a happy end, with this magnificent scene of reconciliation found in the Namthar:

“He (the Karmapa) presented himself at the Potala and met the Great Fifth who solicitously enquired at length about his journeys and religious practices. As the Cheu-jé (Karmapa) was advanced in age and a little hard of hearing, the conversation took place via an intermediary. There followed a banquet and excellent gifts. Later, when he paid a visit to the Jowo, the most sacred Buddha statue in all of Tibet, there occurred innumerable visions. The Cheu-jé himself was seen in the form of Songtsen Gampo (a Tibetan king of the 7th century) in Jowo’s heart.”



Coming to our own times, this goodwill and mutual respect between the prelates – if not the disciples – is evident in the words of the 14th Dalai Lama in the course of the interview he granted us at Dharamsala on the occasion of the arrival of the 17th Karmapa after his perilous escape in early 2000: “As far as I am concerned, I had great regard for the 16th Karmapa. He used to come to Lhasa very often and I have transmitted to him many initiations, including that of Kalachakra despite the fact that he was my elder and we were both very young at the time. We were very close to each other and when I went to China on Mao’s invitation, he formed part of my entourage. I think he also accompanied me on one of my trips to India. When we returned from China, I sent representatives across all the provinces and schools to affirm our unity. He was also very close to my mother, who liked him very much.”

Is it then surprising that when the Chinese tried to cozy up to the present Karmapa in the hopes of turning him into a potential rival to the Dalai Lama, he immediately thought of fleeing? An anecdote reported to us should have given them a hint. When a Chinese high official asked the Karmapa, who was then barely 10 years old, to express a wish, he replied:

“Of what use, you will not be able to grant it.”
“Do you think there is anything that I cannot grant?” asked the high official.
“I want to meet the Dalai Lama.”


Legitimacy: towards the end of the controversy

The Tibetan community has found itself, for a time, divided by the controversy surrounding the Karmapa. In fact, while Orgyen Trinley Dorje was recognized as the 17th Karmapa in 1992 by several high dignitaries of the Karma-Kagyu school and even by the Dalai Lama himself, another young man, Trinley Thaye Dorje, was installed as the 17th Karmapa in 2003 by other dignitaries of the school and in particular, Shamar Rinpoche.

Will the latter’s sudden demise, on 11 June of this year, bring an end to the controversy, the rival candidacy he had set up, that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 17th Karmapa? Some experts like the Tibetologue Thierry Dodin seem to think so. He writes: “His demise leaves a lacuna which his entourage will find hard to fill. His protégé, Trinley Thaye Dorje, whom he spent twenty years trying to win acceptance for as the true Karmapa, has not been able to project a strong personality or emerge from his mentor’s shadow. ”

Thaye Dorje, who is more often than not referred to as, to quote the words of the Dalai Lama, “Shamar Rinpoche’s candidate”, has himself declared publicly, in December 2012, that personally speaking, he would submit to the decision of the Tibetan government.

There now remain only a handful, mainly in the West, who continue to stoke a controversy that may soon resolve itself, allowing for the 17th Karmapa to rejoin his monastery at Rumtek in Sikkim, from which he is still barred by Indian authorities. The Indian authorities too seem less convinced by the smear campaign that projected Orgyen Trinley Dorje as a Chinese agent by pointing to the fact that he was the only one to be recognized by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities.

This could, on the contrary, be a factor that bodes well for Tibetan Buddhism in the future.



1) What are the principal goals we must achieve in the 21st century?

If we are to leave future generations a home that they can thrive on, we must find a way to live in harmony with our planet, to live sustainably and responsibly. Climate change is already devastating the world we know – whether unleashing severe natural disasters on people and turning them into refugees, or destroying crops and ecological habitats all over the world. And yet, all the nations on this planet continue to use up even more fossil fuels than they have in the past despite feeling the consequences in this very moment.

It is not difficult to recognize that there is a causal relationship between the environmental crisis and the rampant consumerism that exists in our societies. Why is there such an unending appetite for things? We seem to have a deep-seated conviction that acquiring more material goods will make us happy. Even if our own logic and experiences tell us otherwise, everything around us – the advertisements, television shows and movies, magazines, social media and so on – urges us to ignore that evidence and continue our mindless behavior.

Therefore, a goal of ours must be to hit pause. We should pause and assess whether we really want to continue on this path. Do we want to keep measuring our success in life so heavily in terms of external goods? At this rate there really are not enough resources to go around, so if we do not pause and reassess, we will only continue to sow the seeds for violence, whether to the planet or amongst ourselves.

Although the earth’s resources have natural limits, our own greed has no natural boundaries, and so we must learn to limit our desire ourselves. We must do this not only to protect the planet but to find a way to share the earth’s bounty fairly among all living beings. A life based on pursuing things is fundamentally unsatisfying. As the Buddha said, chasing our desires is like drinking salty water. The more we drink, the thirstier we become. Therefore, I believe that where we find meaning in life as individuals and as society will need to change in the 21st-century. We need to pause, slow down and simplify.

2) What are the qualities we need to develop in order to achieve them?

I think compassion is a quality that can be of tremendous power in our efforts to address the environmental crisis, and to find deeper meaning in life. When we think of our efforts to protect the environment as a way of caring for all the beings that live on this planet, and of expressing our love and gratitude for all the earth has given us already, then our work for change can be rooted in compassionate caring for others. Compassion as a motivation is much more powerful and wholesome than fear or anger, and is much more able to last in the long term. It also brings more happiness in and of itself.

Another quality that I believe we must develop in order to achieve a more sustainable future is a sense of contentment. This is a powerful antidote in a society where advertising constantly tells us that we do not have enough. Contentment is the best form of wealth in that it gives us the highest satisfaction. We can gain it simply by learning to recognize and appreciate what we already have, including our own inner resources. We can cultivate the perspective that what we have is enough and that we want others to have enough too. A simple way to do this is to stop and reflect on how many long chains of causes and conditions needed to come together for us to simply be able to breathe. Something that is completely indispensable for our existence, that for our very lives we depend on having constantly available, and here it is available to us at every moment with no effort on our part. We can cultivate a sense of wonder and simply joy at the generosity of our planet and develop a conviction that other living beings, people and animals, should be able to share in this.

3) Since childhood you say you wanted to meet His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, risking your life, you went to India and now you have met him, what is your impression of His Holiness the Dalai Lama? What relationship do you have?

I feel an unwavering devotion for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Since the time I fled Tibet at the age of fourteen, he has been nothing but kind and caring to me. I feel utmost gratitude to him for taking the time out of his busy schedule to advise me over the last fifteen years. Without a doubt, my activities have been successful due to his support and his guidance. People often ask me whether as the Karmapa I experience any worries or tensions and if so, how do I address them. Of course I do. I like to tell them that just like them, I turn to my teachers for wisdom and in the case of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his very presence dissolves my worries and uncertainties.

Sometimes I get asked the question in media interviews whether I will become the next Dalai Lama. This is always very strange since only the 15th Dalai Lama can be the next Dalai Lama. The Karmapas have never played a political role in the history of Tibet and I myself have no interest to become a political leader. However, as much as I can support His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s spiritual goals and activities, I will do so with all of my energy. Without his omniscience, we Tibetans would be totally lost.

Translation from French by Bettina Gazelle