In his speech during the recent closing ceremony for the 35th Kagyu Monlam—the Karma Kagyu lineage’s most important annual prayer festival—held in Bodh Gaya, India, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje shared an unusually personal message with the assembly.
After the usual expressions of gratitude and appreciation, the Karmapa revealed his personal struggles with the pressures associated with his religious and political role, and his wish to heal long-standing rifts within the Karma Kagyu lineage. His Holiness was not physically present at the festival, but addressed the crowd via video feed from the United States, where he has been staying for the past six months.*
The video, which has since been made available on YouTube in Tibetan, English, and Chinese, is causing ripples within the Tibetan Buddhist community, with some interpreting the message as a sign of a potential resignation, while others have praised the Karmapa’s honesty, humility, and spiritual wisdom, especially in relation to his view on intra-sectarian politics.
“I have actually myself been quite downcast and depressed,” His Holiness relates. “This is because when other people look at what I have tried to do, they take it as a matter of course, but for my own part, I have had to give up a lot. None of it has been easy. . . . Many people think to themselves that being the Karmapa, you know, is like some incredible thing but for me, that hasn’t happened. Even if I am the Karmapa, the situation is still that I really need to try hard.”
The Karmapa also shares his regret about gaps in the education he received in Tibet and India, with the teachers of his lineage being so geographically dispersed. Previous Karmapas would have had direct access to a network of primary teachers of the Karma Kagyu lineage to teach and guide them, His Holiness explained, but with all the teachers being scattered, that is not possible.
“When I read the lives of the previous Karmapas, the Karmapas and their heart sons all stayed together,” the Karmpa explained. “Wherever they went, they were together. Whether it’s by teaching Dharma, or by taking care of each other. It was like, at that time, they all took care of each other but this has never happened with me. And for me, this is something I feel very disappointed about.”
He also briefly addresses the difficulties he has experienced with the Indian government, which in the past has suggested that the Karmapa may have been sent to spy on behalf of China, and the lack of freedom he experienced as a child, already weighed down by the expectations associated with his position.
His Holiness also discusses his wish to heal the rift that was created in the Karma Kagyu lineage after the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, passed away in 1981. In the wake of his passing, two Karma Kagyu lineage holders, Shamar Rinpoche and Tai Situ Rinpoche, recognized and enthroned two Karmapas: Trinley Thaye Dorje and Ogyen Trinley Dorje, respectively, causing a split in the lineage. The majority of Tibetan Buddhists recognize Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the incarnation of the 16th Karmapa, although an influential minority recognizes Trinley Thaye Dorje.
The Karmapa is the head of the Karma Kagyu, the largest lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The institution of the Karmapa is the oldest tulku lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, predating the Dalai Lama lineage by more than two centuries. Due to a dispute within the Karma Kagyu over the recognition process, the identity of the 17th Karmapa remains a matter of some controversy.
Ogyen Trinley Dorje describes meeting Shamar Rinpoche, who has since passed away, and states, “From the depths of my heart, I think we can have reconciliation, and I am doing a few things to bring that about. But it’s not something for one person to do. It’s so crucial that we remember that both sides need to be open. If we continue to always say bad things about each other and criticize each other, if we continue to do that, I do not think it will turn out well.”
Stressing unity rather than separation, he continues: “Our teachings, the Kamtsang [Karma Kagyu lineage] are the same. Our gurus are the same. The color of our hats is the same. But if, despite this, we continue to cling to our own factions, no matter how right we are, we’ll have such bias toward our own sides that we will work for ourselves, to win for ourselves to defeat the others. So taking this on would be like a complete mistake. There’ll be nothing good about it. So, we often say there is the Shamar side and that there is the Situ side. There’s one side or the other. Actually we aren’t on the Situ Rinpoche side, we aren’t on the Shamar Rinpoche side. We are all on the Karma Kagyu side.”
The Karmapa also describes the anxiety and inner conflict he has experienced having been forced into a political role, even though traditionally “the Gyalwa Karmapa has been a lama who has engaged only in Dharma activities, not one who has been involved in politics.” He notes that it is important for the future of the Karma Kagyu lineage to engage both in politics and the Dharma, but emphasizes that these two should not be combined in the person of the Karmapa.
“Politics means dividing into factions and then dividing into groups then trying to find profit and benefit. But Dharma, Dharma means not divide into factions but instead bring benefit to all sentient beings who are as limitless as space. . . . So the way Dharma and politics work is completely different. Since I have the responsibility of being a religious leader, I can only contend in the direction of the Dharma. When I was in Tibet, I was worried that I would have to get involved in politics. Once I arrived in India, I’ve always thought that if it came to me having to do political activities, I would not have the skills to do it, I wouldn’t know how to do it and I have no wish to do so.”
After noting his difficulties in handling the pressures he has experienced trying to fit the expectations and responsibilities associated with his role, the Karmapa ends by appealing to the Karma Kagyu sangha for their help to support the future of the lineage: “A single pillar can’t hold up a single building, can it? Everyone needs to work hard and help out. We say that everyone has to have people who take care of them. If you’re taking care of somebody, you need other people to take care of you. . . . [O]ur Kagyu lineage in general, and in particular the Karma Kamtsang, it’s like we’re a big family. It’s like a big family and in this family, the Gyalwa Karmapa is like the father of the family. But the father can’t take all the responsibility alone. The support of all the family members is needed.”