Dispatch #1: On Loss
Part One: A Sylvia Plath Moment at the Charles Hotel
The Print Friendly Version
     On August 8 of this year, 2001, I drove from our place in the Adirondacks to Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss a possible future Dispatch with Shamar Rinpoche, a high lama of the kagiu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and an American practitioner whom I have known since childhood. The drive across New England took five hours in my old pickup, which has no air conditioning, and it just happened to be the hottest day of the year, the second day of a four-day heat wave. As the sun sank into the Pacific, ending the day for the U.S.A., the entire country carded a mean high of 95 degrees. Something felt very wrong about it--  the way the whole continent had suddenly just turned into a blast furnace. It didn’t seem at all normal or natural. Massive fronts of extreme weather, spikes of often unseasonal  heat,  have become noticeably more common in the last ten or fifteen years as we continue to obliviously spew hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Elsewhere in the world, huge dense clouds of humidity,  are building in size and turbulence and crackling with electric energy under the heat-trapping layer of CO2, which is why we are seeing more floods tornados, and record-breaking temperatures. Many plants and animals can’t keep up with the sudden change in the climate and are going under because their survival kit, finely tuned to certain conditions that have remained relatively stable since the last Ice Age,  is now worthless. They can’t adapt or migrate poleward fast enough, or there is nowhere for them to go because they are on islands surrounded by salt water or human sprawl. The sugar maples are being pushed north out of Vermont. There won’t be any in New England if this keeps up. Such jolly thoughts occupied my mind as I drove along, contributing however many pounds of particulate carbon to the problem, doing my own bit.

      I was pretty wiped out by the time I reached the Charles Hotel, where the three of us had agreed to meet for dinner at eight. The courtyard, where there were some outdoor tables, was still like an oven, so we decided to eat inside. But the dining room was way too air-conditioned, too frigid for my body, whose every pore was open, passing heat, to adjust to so quickly. By the time dessert came, I could feel the beginning of a sore throat. 

      The second-highest tulku or officially recognized reincarnation of the Buddha in the kagiu hierarchy, Shamar Rinpoche, who is also known as the Shamarpa [and the Kagyu], is one of the major players in a controversy that has been rocking Tibetan Buddhism—the controversy over the seventeenth reincarnation of the Karmapa. The Karmapa is the number one boddhistava of the kagiu lineage, its equivalent of the Dalai Lama (who heads the gelug lineage). The assets attached to the Karmaship worldwide are considerable, and there are two rival reincarnations, two claimants, rather like the two Popes, the one in Rome and the one in Avignon, in the fourteenth century, or the various Anastasias that surfaced after the Russian Revolution (none of whom appear to have been real in the end. According to the latest DNA evidence from the Romanoff massacre site in Ekaterinburg the melancholy eighteen-year- old princess did not escape the firing squad).

      The Shamarpa is one of the four regents who were in charge of finding the next Karmapa after the death of the sixteenth in l981, and of looking after the boy until he reached his majority. Twelve passed, and there was no Karmapa. The kagyu were growing impatient. Finally in l992 another of the regents, Situ Rinpoche, produced a letter that he claimed had been written by the late Sixteenth. It gave instructions as to where and how his next reincarnation could be found.

     This requirement—there must always be a letter—is a feature of the Karmapa succession. Whether it is peculiar to the karmaship, or other tulku searches also require a letter, I don’t know. 

     Situ went to Tibet and following the instructions found the boy, whose name was Urgyen Thinlay. Or it was the other way around, as his detractors allege: he had already found the boy and then written the letter himself. A third regent, Jonghum Khontrol Rinpoche, set out for Tibet from India to see the boy for himself and en route was killed when his car either swerved off the road to avoid killing some birds, or, as Shamarpa’s detractors allege, was blown up with a bomb commissioned by the Shamarpa. This precipitated Situ to announce publicly that the seventeenth Karmapa had been found, and that he was Urgyen Thinlay. The Shamarpa was furious because Situ had broken a pact the four regents had made to make no public statements until they met again in the fall, and because he was engaged in his own search and following clues that led him to a boy in Lhasa named Taye Dorje, whom he announced to be the true Karmapa two years later. 

     I had met both “soul boys,” as the Chinese call tulkus, or officially recognized reincarnations of Buddha, in l995: Taye Dorje is now seventeen, and Urgyen Thinlay fifteen. Both are now in India.  I had been twice to Tshurphu, the monastery three hours outside of Lhasa that is the seat of the Karmapa. Tsurphu is perched at 16,000 feet, at the head of a spectacular valley plugged by a hanging glacier. In the cave-riddled cliffs above the monastery, aspiring monks were undergoing their three-year, three-month-three-day retreat during which they were not allowed to speak to anyone or to lie down and sleep, and had to keep themselves warm solely by tum-mo heat meditation. This was in l995. I gave a katha, the traditional offering of a white scarf, to Urgyen Thinlay, who had been recognized as the Karmapa by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese. He was surrounded by Chinese bodyguards and was reading a comic book. I was forbidden to speak with him. As I backed out the door, Urgyen Thinlay winked at me. It was not an ordinary wink, but a very powerful one that zapped me the same way I was zapped when the Dalai Lama gave my beard a playful tug seven years earlier. The effects of that tug took a month to wear off. 

     I had also known the sixteenth Karmapa. My older brother had been attracted to Buddhism and Tibet in his teens in the fifties, and in l960 he had roomed at Oxford with Trogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, another high kagiu tulku who had just arrived in the West and would later become the guru of Alan Ginsberg. In the early seventies my brother converted his house in Katonah, New York, into the first karma kagyu meditation center  and the Karmapa came and did a Black Hat ceremony. The sight of him placing his black hat on his head is said to be a very powerful transmission.

     I had also written (in the August, l996 issue of Vanity Fair LINK TO ARTICLE) about the kidnapping of the present, eleventh Panchen Lama by the Chinese. He had been secretly recognized in Tibet by the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese had replaced by a “soul boy” of their own choosing. His whereabouts, or whether he is even still alive, are still unknown So I have a more than passing interest in controversy over the seventeenth Karmapa, which has bitterly divided the kagius. I am not in either camp. I am not even a practicing Buddhist. I have never “taken refuge,” committed myself to living by the precepts of the Buddha.  But many of them I have found very useful in understanding the nature of existence, particularly his breakdown of the basic causes of suffering. My own life has brought me to many of the same conclusions. I had already realized, for instance, from 30 years as a journalist, that there is no such thing as absolute truth. There are only versions, often wildly divergent ones. In places with particularly active rumor mills like central Africa, Brazil, India, Nepal, and Tibet— places I have spent much of my career to writing about—I have had to content myself with collecting versions, with being a “total-immersion version journalist,” as I called myself. The Karmapa controversy was already shaping up as one of these assignments where “the truth” was going to be very hard to establish, if not impossible. 

    Starting out with the premise that tulkus reincarnate when they die (or even before they die, in some cases like the tenth Panchen) as some boy somewhere in Tibet who has to be found and identified (traditionally the tulkus have been Tibetan, but now as more Westerners take refuge in Tibetan Buddhism, a French boy, and a Spanish one, have been recognized as reincarnations). The tulku recognition system was started by the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193).
Its original intent was egalitarian. It was designed to prevent the buildup of hereditary spiritual power in families or clans. (There was an aristocracy in old Tibet, but their power was worldly.)
Any Tibetan family, even the lowliest drokhpa or nomads, could produce the next Karmapa or Dalai Lama. But because of the manipulation of regents and other adults, the system has been subject to all kinds of abuse. Only two of the six Dalai Lamas in the nineteenth century, for, made it to the age of twenty. The rest were done in by palace intrigues. 

    By now there are more than 600 tulkus. Even Steven Segal, the action-movie star, has been recognized as a rinpoche, a title of adoration bestowed on tulkus and other holy men, by Kusum Lingpa, a leading lama of the nyingma lineage—a matter of some embarrassment to Buddhists around the world. The Shamarpa told us that in his opinion the situation had gotten out of hand and the whole institution should be curtailed if not abolished altogether because it “creates religious dukedoms” and “is infectious.” Only the Dalai Lama should continue to be recognized in the traditional way. Otherwise he would not be the Dalai Lama. Tibetans would not accept him. 

     The Dalai Lama himself has declared that his next reincarnation should be only a religious leader, and that his political functions should be transferred to someone else who is democratically elected, so the entire tulku system is threatened, not least by the Chinese who see it as medieval feudal religious mumbo jumbo that is keeping the Tibetans from progressing (which hasn’t stopped them from using it for their own purposes of control and influence). And this Florentine imbroglio over the seventeenth Karmapa wasn’t helping the situation. “It exposes the dark side of Tibetan Buddhism,” as my sister, who is a kagiu practitioner, put it. 

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