Reincarnation and Recognition of the
17th Karmapa, Thinley Thaye Dorje :
by Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche
17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Thinley Thaye Dorje, was born in 1983 in the Year
of the Pig. He is the first-born of the 3rd Mipham Rinpoche of the Nyingmapa
School of Buddhism.
The 17th Karmapa's father is the third reincarnation of the 1st Mipham
Rinpoche, the head of 13 Nyingma monasteries in Kham, Tibet, and a descendant
from many generations of doctors and learned medical scholars. His mother,
Dechen Wangmo, is the daughter of a noble family descended from King Gaesar
of Ling. In his youth the 3rd Mipham Rinpoche escaped the fate that befell
many Tibetan people unable to practice their religion under Chinese communist
rule. His teacher found a hiding place in the mountains where they were
able to practice the Dharma continuously ever since his early childhood.
In 1982, after a general relaxation of government restrictions on religious
practice, Mipham Rinpoche went to Lhasa to take part in the reconstruction
of Buddhist institutions and practice. Due to his good connection with
the Panchen Lama, his activities were particularly successful.
In the early 1980s, Mipham Rinpoche's yidam (a personal deity in Vajrayana
Buddhism) predicted to him that if he took a consort that he would produce
several sons who would be great bodhisattvas. The next day a group of
pilgrims from Kham arrived to see him; among them was Dechen Wangmo. He
realized that she was humble and gentle and an accomplished Chakrasambhara
practitioner. When he proposed marriage, she immediately accepted.
As man and wife, Mipham Rinpoche and Dechen Wangmo settled in an apartment
rented from an old lady in the Bakor area of Lhasa on the same street
that circled three-quarters around the famous Jokhang Temple. A son was
born in wedlock in the year 1983. At the age of two and a half, the little
boy started to tell people that he was the Karmapa. The landlady happened
to be a distant relative of the late 16th Karmapa and had met him before
he escaped from Tibet in 1959. He told her once, "Before you die, you
will meet me again." Due to the exceptional behavior of the boy, she was
convinced that he was the Karmapa himself. Out of strong devotion, she
offered the use of her apartment to the family for free. However, Mipham
Rinpoche remained silent about his son while hoping that he might turn
out to be the reincarnation of the great Nyingma master Katog Situ Rinpoche.
One day in early 1985, when Ngorpa Lagen, a humble old Sakya lama, was
circumambulating the Jokhang Temple in the circular street, he noticed
the gleaming white face of a little boy peering out of the window of a
private house. Drawn by curiosity, he walked towards the window, and the
little boy said, "Don't you know that I am the Karmapa?" Without pondering
the seriousness behind these simple words, Ngorpa Lagen replied, "If you
are, then give me a blessing." The boy stretched out his arm and touched
the lama. According to the lama, he instantly felt something akin to the
post-meditative experience of deep calm and expansiveness that prevails
over all forms of gross emotions.
A few days after this blessing, the Sakya lama, together with a group
of pilgrims who had arrived from his homeland, went to Mipham Rinpoche
for a prediction as to where their next pilgrimage should be. He noticed
the little boy who previously had blessed him playing in a corner by himself.
Mipham Rinpoche asked the group of visitors how many families they were.
When they answered, "seven," the little boy rang out from the corner and
said, "Eight!" All of them were obliged to count again. When they realized
that the boy was right, the lama reported that his hair stood on end and
that his shock and excitement were so great that it was difficult to hide
his reaction completely.
Further along his pilgrimage in late 1985, Ngorpa Lagen went to Kathmandu,
Nepal, and joined a large annual prayer and recitation gathering led by
Lama Sherab Rinpoche, a disciple of the late Karmapa. The two soon became
acquainted, and Ngorpa Lagen began telling Lama Sherab Rinpoche about
his encounter with the little boy in Bakor. After this, Lama Sherab Rinpoche
and his attendant Chopel Zangpo left for the Tsurphu Monastery but first
stopped to visit Mipham Rinpoche in Lhasa. The boy was not with his father
when they arrived, so Lama Sherab Rinpoche asked if he could nevertheless
see the boy. When he was brought in, he sat next to his father quietly,
but from time to time would eye the guests and smile with obvious amusement.
When Lama Sherab Rinpoche inquired about the wife of Mipham Rinpoche,
he replied she was doing a Chakrasambhara retreat. During the course of
the conversation, Lama Sherab Rinpoche reported that he started to tremble
and was unable to stop. As soon as they left, his attendant immediately
told him that something very strange had happened to him while they were
talking, which was exactly what Lama Sherab Rinpoche himself had felt.
The above story was first recounted to me in 1987 by Lama Sherab Rinpoche.
The circumstances of the story matched those of an earlier report brought
to me from Lhasa. In October 1986, Chobje Tri Rinpoche had alerted me
about Mipham Rinpoche's son and showed me a photograph of the young boy.
Between late 1981 and 1984, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Kongtrul Rinpoche, Gyaltseb
Rinpoche and I - the committee of regents established by the late Karmapa's
General Secretary Dhamcho Yongdu to find the reincarnated Karmapa - held
several meetings to coordinate our efforts to recognize the Karmapa's
reincarnation. Although Dhamcho Yongdu did not have the authority to create
such a group of regents, I initially followed along to be polite. Soon
however, I felt that these meetings increasingly became politicized; resolutions
were never acted on as the three other committee members had promised.
Instead, other courses of action were pursued without notice to the full
committee. I was left with no choice but to act independently, but quietly,
in my capacity as the Shamarpa, while inside the committee I did my best
to win the other Rinpoches to my point of view. After all, by long-standing
practice, it is Shamarpas who are empowered to identify and recognize
In 1988 I undertook my own independent investigations to determine the
authenticity of the Mipham Rinpoche's son as the Karmapa. First I asked
Tsechu Rinpoche who visited Tibet as part of a Nepalese government delegation
to obtain more information about the young boy during his visit. Next
I sent a lama to go to Lhasa to investigate the boy more directly. Immediately
upon their first meeting, the boy told the lama that he had been sent
to investigate him. The results of all these reports and investigations
prompted me in July 1988 to go into a long retreat when I confirmed that
the boy was indeed the reincarnated 17th Karmapa.
In spite of my personal conviction about the identity of the Karmapa,
the time still had not come to make a formal declaration. However, in
early 1991, at the inauguration of the Karma Kagyu monastery built by
Shangpa Rinpoche at Phokhara which was attended by Dhazang Rinpoche, Shachu
Rinpoche and hundreds of lamas plus more than four thousand Tibetans,
I announced: 1) Tibet probably would be the country of the Karmapa's next
reincarnation; 2) The supplication to the 16th Karmapa for his early rebirth
should be changed to supplication to the 17th Karmapa for his long life;
3) The name of the 17th Karmapa that I had decided on was Thaye Dorje.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this announcement was that I had
in effect confirmed the reincarnation of the 17th Karmapa.
Karma Pakshi, the 2nd Karmapa, in his esoteric works (sangwei namthar)
called Dugpa Tsarchod predicted the rebirths of 21 Karmapas and gave or
predicted the name of each rebirth. The name of the 18th Karmapa is Thaye
Dorje. However, the 5th Karmapa also predicted, "My lineage weakens, at
the time of the 16th or 17th Karmapa." On the surface Karma Pakshi's prediction
seems inconsistent with my recognition and naming of the 17th Karmapa
as Thaye Dorje. The apparent inconsistency can be readily explained, though.
As is well known, the reincarnation of the 14th Karmapa only lived for
three years and was never enthroned; so official protocol does not count
the fifteenth rebirth as the 15th Karmapa. Thus, it follows that the sixteenth
rebirth of the Karmapa becomes the 15th Karmapa upon enthronement and
so forth. In other words, the predictions of Karma Pakshi and the 5th
Karmapa are not ambiguous but actually correct. The 5th Karmapa's prediction
of the weakening of the lineage at the time of the 16th or 17th Karmapas
actually refers to the discrepancy between the number of rebirths and
the number of enthronements caused by the early death of the fifteenth
reincarnation. Karma Pakshi's predicted bestowal of the name Thaye Dorje
for the 18th Karmapa is actually correct since the 17th Karmapa to be
enthroned is the 18th by rebirth.
(Incidentally, my announcement at Pokhara in 1991 contradicts and, indeed,
completely disproves Tai Situ Rinpoche's accusation of me just a short
time afterwards in 1992, that I was trying to stage Karmapa's reincarnation
in the Bhutanese royal family. I can only conclude that his baseless claim
was nothing more than a calculated, desperate tactic to obstruct my recognition
of the genuine Karmapa.)
My announcement at Pokhara no doubt caused much excitement but also provoked
many comments. It also stimulated Lama Sherab Rinpoche to come to me immediately
in Kathmandu and show me a poem written on a piece of paper. A very hold
saint named Lobpon Kunzang Rinpoche, who had already passed away before
1991, had given the paper to Lama Sherab Rinpoche in 1983 in strict confidence
on one of his many visits to Lobpon Kunzang Rinpoche's retreat in the
Rinag mountains in Sikkim. The exact literary origin of the poem is still
being ascertained. According to Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche, the spiritual
leader of the Manang tribal community of Nepal, Lobpon Kunzang Rinpoche
said there are two possible sources. One is the old text called The Treasures
of Yogi Zilon Lingpa (Zilon Lingpa belonged to the Nyingma School of Buddhism).
The other possible source for the poem is the late Dudjom Rinpoche when
he was performing a special Guru Padmasambhara puja in Kalimpong in the
the official announcement of the recognition of the 17th Karmapa Thaye
Dorje could be made, Tai Situ Rinpoche and his party tried to discredit
me and to undermine the credibility of my identification of the 17th
Karmapa. He took many illegal and spiritually corrupt steps that as
far as our Karma Kagyu tradition is concerned, are completely dishonorable,
The 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje
He and his followers even went to the extreme of violently attacking the
Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim in August 1993, and through mob action forcibly
evicting the late Karmapa's monks from the monastery.
Immediately after the Karmapa Thaye Dorje and his family managed to escape
from Tibet to Nepal in March 1994, the young Karmapa came to New Delhi where
during a welcome ceremony I formally recognized him as the 17th Karmapa.
In November 1996, he joined the monkhood by receiving refuge vows from Buddha
in a large ceremony at the Buddha Gaya Temple. He then was give the name
Thinley (meaning, Buddha activity) Thaye (limitless) Dorje (unchanging).
As should be clear from this account, my identification and recognition
of the 17th Karmapa Thinley Thaye Dorje proceeded according to many centuries
of Karma Kagyu tradition. The process was completely spiritual and not corrupted
by political motives. The same unfortunately cannot be said of Tai Situ
Rinpoche and his followers. In a separate document I shall set forth his
illegitimate actions and disprove his accusations.
[Written September 1999]
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