My good friend Dave Lawson sent me a link to an article in the Times Online by Michael Binyon. Written some three or four weeks ago, it is entitled Disunity threatens the Dalai Lama’s timeless authority. It is full of tired old chestnuts, and the comments that have been added by others are sadly full of ideas that I thought had curled up and died in a dusty corner long ago. We are only allowed 300 characters with which to comment on the Times site, so although I did that there, I wanted to expand on it here.
Binyon starts the article by referring, as if it were news, to the story of Lama Tenzin Osel, who “has changed his name, denounced the Buddhist order that revered him as a man of spiritual authority and is now studying film in Madrid”. Perhaps somebody can explain to me why this story suddenly spread across the news media a few weeks ago? In the cases that I read, it was always tied in, almost gleefully, with the idea that “See, things in Tibetan Buddhism are not as happy as people like to pretend”. I can certainly see that this case is not a happy one, and I can see that it does raise question marks, to some extent about the Tulku system in general, and more particularly about the recognition of little western boys (as Tenzin Osel was). The puzzle is, however, that it is old news. Tenzin Osel has been – and has been known to be – moving away from his role as a Tulku for some years. Clearly somebody decided recently to make it a campaigning point, but I don’t know who.
Binyon then feeds a couple of foolish misconceptions, to which I will return soon, by stating that “the Dalai Lama’s choice as his successor appears to have fallen on Ogyen Trinley Dorje”. Ogyen Trinley is, of course, the one we generally know as the 17th Karmapa. There are three problems here. Firstly, it is altogether jumping the gun. Secondly, the question of what is meant by “successor” badly needs clarifying. In the light of his age, intelligence, importance and charisma it is perfectly possible that the 17th Karmapa will become a semi-political figurehead for the Tibetans, just as the Dalai Lama is a semi-political figurehead at the moment. If the Dalai Lama were to give appropriate indications, there is no doubt that it would strengthen the possibility that this would happen, but he is not in a position to “appoint” the Karmapa in that way; it is simply a matter of popular feeling amongst the Tibetan people. Thirdly, however, there are also those who are frantically waving the nonsensical red herring that the Dalai Lama wants to appoint the Karmapa as the next Dalai Lama. This is, I suppose, intended as a form of scaremongering, but the idea could only be entertained by those with no clear idea of how these positions hang together.
A little further down Binyon asserts that “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”. This is just wrong. To the best of my knowledge, only a very tiny fraction of the Tibetan community have any allegiance for Shamarpa’s “rival Karmapa”. His followers consist almost entirely of those still loyal to Ole Nydahl and the “Diamondway” organisation. Binyon goes on: “A large number are loyal instead to the handsome and charismatic Trinley Thaye Dorje”. Apart from the fact that this is not true, and the number is not particularly large outside of Europe, he raises some almost embarrassing points here. While we would love to think that good looks and charisma are not important in these matters, we should perhaps be realistic. These are public figures. But “handsome and charismatic”? To judge from the photographs, Trinley Thaye Dorje is not as weedy as he looked a few years ago, which is pleasing no doubt. But if you want “tall, handsome and charismatic”, and if you feel that these issues have a lot of weight, then you simply cannot get past the more generally recognised Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje:
(Oh, did I mention intelligent and artistically gifted?)
The next chestnut is Binyon’s assertion that “The Supreme Court in India has backed Thaye Dorje’s claim”. It has not. The endlessly slow court processes in Sikkim are still proceeding. Some years ago – and this seems to be the basis of Binyon’s statement – the court did make a procedural ruling on the question of whether Gyaltsap Rinpoche could appear in a particular role in the court proceedings on the same side as the supporters of the generally recognised Karmapa. The Supreme Court said that he could not, and Shamarpa’s followers trumpeted this as a victory. In fact it was nothing of the sort; it had an effect on the way that the court case was to be heard but said nothing about the final conclusions, for which we are still waiting.
In his remaining paragraphs, Binyon manages to insert one or two more unlikely claims. He suggests that the Karmapa is “pro Chinese”, a point of view widely promulgated by the opposing side, but one which requires considerable intellectual acrobatics when explaining the Karmapa’s escape from the Chinese at the beginning of the millennium. He says, for instance, that “many commentators” consider the script of the letter that played a part in the Karmapa’s recognition was very different from the normal writing of its claimed author, the 16th Karmapa. One wonders who the “many commentators” are – I suggest that there are one or two commentators who take that point of view, some who say that the handwriting is like that of the 16th Karmapa, and quite a number who said that it is impossible to tell.
Some of the comments added to this article are even more tired. Morgan Camp, for instance, asks “Is there a historical precedent for the Dali (sic) Lama choosing a Karmapa or is this the first time this has ever occurred?” The implication, of course, is that the Dalai Lama did in fact choose this Karmapa, which is simply not true. The Dalai Lama confirmed and added his own recognition to the recognition presented to him by three of the four “regents” of the 16th Karmapa. But I must leave you to read them for yourself.