There is an old saying, “All is fair in love and war”. Miguel de Cervantes made the comparison in the 1604 play Don Quixote when he wrote, “Love and war are all one. It is lawful to use sleights and stratagems to attain the wished end.” And apparently, the adage applies to Tibetan Buddhism as well.
Since the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje emerged into the limelight after his dramatic escape from China in the year 2000, he is increasingly seen to be a protégé of the present and 14th Dalai Lama. The relationship of the elder statesman cum spiritual leader with the younger monk goes beyond cordial respect of a leader of one Tibetan Buddhist sect for the head of a rival sect. The two live very close by to one another in Dharamsala and often the younger Karmapa is included when the Dalai Lama grants audiences to delegations and journalists. At other times, the Dalai Lama is heard actively encouraging the media to seek audience with the Karmapa, promoting the latter in very positive and encouraging tones.
It is not surprising that speculations are rife that the Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje is a likely successor to the Dalai Lama. A 2012 video captures a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Ling Choktrul Rinpoche, the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor, and the Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje in which the Dalai Lama can be heard saying,
…and when I die, you will be the ones who will continue my work…
So it is clear how the Dalai Lama feels about the young Karmapa.
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As the Dalai Lama has shown deep respect and preference for the Karmapa, it would seem that such reverence is mutual. In 1961, the 16th and previous Karmapa whom Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the present incarnation of, hailed the Dalai Lama as a pillar of the Dharma and in adulation, said,
You are the great wish-fulfilling jewel.
Pervading the world with myriad lights,
[May You be] permanent, stable, and unchanging as a diamond,
In the red palace of Lhasa on the golden throne held high by lions…
A few years before that, in 1954, during the momentous meeting between the Dalai Lama and Chairman Mao Zedong, the Dalai Lama was accompanied by a delegate of notable Tibetans whom the Dalai Lama trusted and regarded as important. The 16th Karmapa was amongst them. Indeed, the Dalai Lama regarded the Karmapa as a “close friend” and “a very good human being1“.
Seeing that both the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa are emanations of Bodhisattvas, they are then the literal reincarnations of their previous holy lives. In other words, each of them would be the return of the same (singular) and enlightened mind stream and thus, are supposed to be completely omniscient, and should have retained perfect recollection of past knowledge and memories. Therefore, it is only natural to conclude that this affable, mutually respectful and trusting relationship that has been established over centuries and lifetimes is steadfast. But as we shall see, that is in fact not the case.
In an interview with the Dalai Lama in 2001 as narrated by Mick Brown in his book, The Dance of 17 Lives, the Dalai Lama inferred that the 16th Karmapa, whom he had on numerous occasions acclaimed as Buddha Akshobhya, was not at all learned and in fact had told lies about the Dalai Lama (ibid 238). In making this statement, the Dalai Lama was responding to rumors he had heard wherein the Karmapa was alleged to have said that the Dalai Lama was a politician and not a genuine lama.
So we see that in fact all is not well, at least for now, between these two great incarnations and emanations of Avalokiteshvara. The erstwhile warmhearted affection for one another seems to have chilled considerably. The question is, how can there be such a dramatic shift in the attitudes of two supposedly ecclesiastical figures towards one another? Both the Karmapa and the Dalai Lama are ‘tulkus’ meaning that they are the undeviating incarnations of the exact same mind-stream that honored and revered one another. How can the divine being that the Dalai Lama trusted be the same one he then accused of lying and the precise one that he now regards as trustworthy again and seems to be promoting as his successor?
In samsara, such drastic swings of opinion are understandable because samsaric beings are supposed to be helplessly subjected to conditions and perceptions; and opinions are driven by what suits the ego best at the time and what serves the hidden agenda most effectively; but surely these human foibles do not apply to enlightened beings that are supposed to have transcended samsara and such gross transpositions in human feelings and emotions. And yet we see that this is not an isolated case and we see that inconsistencies and instabilities in relationships are very much prominent features in Tibetan Buddhism, at least insofar as affairs regulated by the Dalai Lama line of incarnations.
The Dalai Lama as the Fifth almost decimated the Karma Kagyu lineage, forcibly converted monasteries belonging to the Karmapa and the Sharmapa to Gelug practices, and sent the Karmapa into hiding. But as the Fourteenth, he empowers and promotes the same mind-stream embodied in the Karmapa and readies him for even greater power.
The Fifth Dalai Lama rendered the Jonang sect extinct, annexed all their monasteries into the Gelug monasteries, and declared the Jonangs sectarian and its practitioners apostates of the true Dharma. The same mind stream manifesting as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama formally recognized the Jonang as the fifth Tibetan Buddhist sect and calls it a living Buddhist tradition – the complete opposite of what they were previously accused of and persecuted for. So what was heretical becomes a living tradition and custodian of the Buddha Dharma without having to change one iota of its lineage practice.
And nowhere is this contradiction and unpredictability more conspicuous than in the relationship between the Dalai Lama and the Wisdom Buddha, Dorje Shugden. The Dalai Lama’s line of incarnations and Dorje Shugden’s line of incarnations have intertwined since the time of Lama Tsongkapa, who was master to both incarnations of that period – Gendun Drub and Duldzin Drakpa Gyaltsen. In his manifestation as Sonam Gyatso, the 3rd Dalai Lama received teachings from his beloved Guru, Panchen Sonam Drakpa, who a past incarnation of Dorje Shugden.
As Lobsang Gyatso the Great Fifth, the Dalai Lama acknowledged Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen (another past incarnation of Dorje Shugden) as an incarnation of Panchen Sonam Drakpa, an undisputed enlightened mind, and then in the same lifetime declared Dorje Shugden to be a perfidious spirit. Then, just as suddenly, a Praise was written to Dorje Shugden as an enlightened being.
A refrain of this Shakespearian comedy is now being played out, again with the Dalai Lama as the protagonist, this time as the Fourteenth. He too began as an ardent practitioner of Dorje Shugden, wrote a beautiful Praise to Dorje Shugden, commented positively on Tulku Drakpa Gyaltsen and then without warning declared the Dorje Shugden practice heretical and its followers sectarian. This sudden reversal of the divinity of Dorje Shugden would be alarming if not for the fact that such vagaries are characteristic and habitual of the Dalai Lama who is the embodiment of two totally contrarian roles, spirituality and politics.
It is not only the Dalai Lama who displays such paradox but many who are in his fold. And we see this clearly in the recent 12th Religious Conference of Four Major Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Tradition2 during which the heads of the various Tibetan Buddhist schools condemned the practice of Dorje Shugden. Amongst them was the Sakya Trizin whose predecessors had regarded Dorje Shugden as being one in nature with Avalokiteshvara; the Karmapa whose previous incarnations have been both friends and enemies with the Dalai Lama, and who had defended Dorje Shugden in the past3 yet now joins in the condemnation; the Jonangs who were schismatic apostates according to the Dalai Lama but who now lend their role to this drama. All are manifesting forgetfulness and denial of their individual and collective espousals of peaceful ideals, and are brazenly pretending that no one would remember their previous attestations of Dorje Shugden, of the Dalai Lama, and of each other.
So what conclusions do we draw from such wild swings in the behavior, thoughts and opinions of supposedly enlightened beings? There can only be two. Either they are mere mortals acting under the convenient guise of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, each with an agenda that is best served by being friends or foes at different times depending on what the situation calls form.
Or they are truly enlightened beings working towards an invisible objective and operating under a ‘Just War’ code which postulates that the End justifies the Means. The great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, offers such an example of a ‘just war’ where Lord Krishna the wise philosopher, the guide to the lost, the hero of the righteous, the teacher of justice, the friend of the benevolent and the protector of truth, who could have easily prevented a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, instead chose war.
Some Dalai Lama apologists have argued that the Dalai Lama’s aggression towards Dorje Shugden is a just war being fought for the betterment of the Buddha Dharma, and done with full consent of the deity Dorje Shugden. Others have said that the Dalai Lama is no more than a ruthless politician who has banned a religion that stands in his way of consolidating total power over the Tibetan people. They cite the Dalai Lama’s own words when he said during his interview with Glenn Mullin,
These monasteries (Jonang) were closed for political reasons, not religious ones, and their closing had nothing to do with sectarianism…4.
That is to say that the Dalai Lama (in his past and present incarnations)has no hesitation in destroying a religious order for reasons known only to him, and blame it on that order practicing apostasy and being sectarian. Replace the labels, resume the stratagem and maintain the ruse, and you have the Dorje Shugden Conflict today.
- p236, The Dance of 17 Lives, Mick Brown, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004.
- While the 16th Karmapa was on a pilgrimage in Nepal he stopped at Orgyen Rinpoche’s monastery. As the Karmapa entered the monastery he saw a statue of Guru Dragpo trampling Dorje Shugden. The Karmapa stood in the presence of the statue for a while, then pointed his finger at it and asked “who is the person that said to build this statue? This isn’t Nyingma nor Sakya, certainly not Gelug and not Kagyu either. I didn’t say to build it, this is not one of the deities you can’t rely on (meaning you can rely on Dorje Shugden). Although the time is a little early in the future you will definitely need to rely on this deity.” (Dorje Shugden) No one dared to respond and own responsibility. The Karmapa then said “remove this now.” Immediately a person with an axe and shovel came and removed the offensive statue. Many lamas present at that time definitely remember, a seventy five year old man from Chamdo called Samcho witnessed this event.
- p 207, the Fourteen Dalai Lamas, Glenn Mullins, 2001