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Now or Never - 13

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By the late summer of 1993. Situ and Gyaltsab acted as if they were under pressure from their allies and supporters to launch their coup at Rumtek soon.

As we saw in the last chapter, control of Rumtek was not necessary to establish Ogyen Trinley's credibility as Karmapa. He already had the Dalai Lama on his side, which was enough for most Tibetans, who did not know that the Dalai Lamas had never chosen a Karrnapa in the past. And it would certainly be enough to give Ogyen Trinley legitimacy with outsiders, for whom the Dalai Lama was a top celebrity.

Yet, for some reason, this was not enough for the two rinpoches and their supporters. After two failed attempts to take the cloister, they were more determined than ever to control Rumtek. Perhaps they had some other motive than supporting Ogyen Trinley? Shamar's supporters have made serious accusations -- particularly that Situ wanted to sell off the priceless relics that the sixteenth Karmapa had brought from Tsurphu when he fled into exile, including the Black Crown. Situ's supporters have denied this charge, but as we will see, Situ's actions at Rumtek became increasingly suspicious.

"I had no objection to Situ proposing a boy to be Karmapa," Shamar told me. "Situs have recognized Karmapas in the past, though there was no need to bring in His Holiness Dalai Lama in this case; His Holiness has no authority over the Karmapa or the Karma Kagyu. But what I really object to is Situ's second agenda of taking over Rumtek by force, in collaboration with corrupt politicians and their hired thugs, for which there can be no justification.

"I am in favor of Tibetan and Buddhist unity, but not at the expense of integrity. Ultimately, different sects are not needed to spread dharma, and they can lead to fighting. The best would be to have one Buddhism, as long as believers are free to follow their traditional practices. This means that their teachers must be free to pass along the lineages of oral teachings that have been so carefully preserved from Shakyamuni Buddha down to the present day. Every Buddhist country has that, and it is unspeakably precious, it gives us confidence that the teaching is authentic. Once an oral lineage is lost, it is gone forever. We may still have the books of its teachings; but the torch of blessing, handed off from one generation to the next, has been snuffed out. Most important for me has been to preserve the purity of the Karma Kagyu lineage. That's my job as Shamarpa."

In 1993, Shamar said just this, protesting that he only wanted to preserve the unbroken lineage of the Karma Kagyu and the authenticity of the Karmapa. To the exasperation of Situ and his followers, Shamar continued to insist that the reincarnation of the Karmapa should he found by "traditional methods."

At Shamar's insistence, the Rumtek administration had stepped up its own efforts to get Situ's letter tested. "Though Chief Minister Bhandari's police and the young men working for his party kept a close watch on the locked room with Situ Rinpoche's prediction letter, we had plans to secretly get it out of Rumtek for a forensic test. We felt that we might succeed at this any day," Shamar told me. In the summer of 1993, time seemed to be running out for Situ and Gyaltsab. Yet, they still had the support of the Dalai Lama.

In June, the Dalai Lama attended a human rights conference in Vienna where he gave a stirring address.

    Brute force, no matter how strongly applied, can never subdue the basic human desire for freedom and dignity. It is not enough, as communist systems have assumed, merely to provide people with food, shelter, and clothing. The deeper human nature needs to breathe the precious air of liberty. However, some governments still consider the fundamental human rights of their citizens an internal matter of the state. They do not accept that the fate of a people in any country is the legitimate concern of the entire human family and that claims to sovereignty are not a license to mistreat one's citizens. It is not only our right as members of the global human family to protest when our brothers and sisters are being treated brutally, but it is also our duty to do whatever we can to help them. [1]

Though his audience in Vienna understood that the Dalai Lamas criticizing China, Shamar and his followers found the Dalai Lama's words ironic. They saw the Dalai Lama's. intervention in the Karmapa recognition as a violation of their religious freedom, a human- rights abuse that Dharamsala leaders were crying to keep as an internal matter of their informal Tibetan state-in-exile.

Back in Sikkim, Situ and Gyaltsab leveraged the Dalai Lama's support to help put pressure on the monks and lamas at Rumtek. In July, Shamar and the Rumtek administration feared that Situ and Gyaltsab would try to take over the monastery at the upcoming Varney retreat due to begin August 2. "The Yarney summer retreat is supposed to be a very peaceful period where the monks focus on studies and meditation," said monk-official Omze Yeshey. "In fact, the responsibility is always with us, the monks of the monastery." The Buddha himself began the tradition of holding a retreat during the subcontinent's rainy season, a traditional retreat that came to be known in Tibet as the Varney. In all Buddhist countries, nuns and monks continue to observe this retreat according to the rules set down by the Buddha 2500 years ago in the Vinaya.

In the opening ceremony for the Varney retreat, known in Tibetan as the Sojong -- which must be completed by noon -- four monks at a time take oaths from the abbot of the monastery. A time of introspection and monastic renewal, according to the rules laid down in the Vinaya, the ceremonies are held in closed sections of a monastery and lay people are not permitted to be present.

The pressure at Rumtek had grown to such proportions that the administration feared disruption during Varney. They tried to prevent any problems in advance. As principal of the Nalanda Institute, in mid-July Shamar declared a school vacation, and instructed the monk-students to leave Rumtek for their homes by August 1, 1993. Then, the Rumtek monks decided not to perform the Varney pujas that year. Having done everything he could think of to prevent problems, Shamar reluctantly left Rumtek to visit his ailing mother at a hospital in Germany on July 22.

As soon as Shamar was gone, following the pattern of the previous year, Situ and Gyaltsab went into action. First, they declared that they would proceed with the Sojong, despite the decision of Shamar and the Rumtek monks to cancel that year's retreat. Meanwhile, the shedra students ignored Shamar's instructions to go home, and remained at Rumtek, preparing to perform the Yarney pujas under the direction of Situ and Gyaltsab. The resident monks had to abide the decrees of the two high rinpoches because of their authority in the Karma Kagyu hierarchy, if not in the Karmapa labrang or at Rumtek itself. But perhaps even more compelling than protocol, the monks feared that the hundreds of followers that Situ and Gyaltsab had imported into Rumtek would support the two rinpoches' will with violence, if necessary.

The Rumtek monks still hoped to avoid conflict. The residents begged the visiting rinpoches, if they were determined to go through with the Sojong, at least to allow separate ceremonies for the shedra students and the resident monks. "We declared that if the Yarney were practiced together, that is to say if these shedra students participated, there would be bloodshed and the monastery's reputation would be damaged," said monk-official Omze Yeshe. But Situ and Gyaltsab disagreed, saying all the monks should practice together. "Situ Rinpoche insisted that the monastery monks and the shedra students should perform the Yarney together. He said that the Yarney was open to everybody and that we couldn't exclude the shedra students."

The monks tried to reason with the two rinpoches, whose motives they had good reason to doubt. Yet, the monks claimed that they still respected Situ and Gyaltsab as enlightened masters who could only have the wellbeing of Rumtek at heart. "Our discussions with Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoche took place in the early morning of August 2, the day on which the Yarney was supposed to start," said Omze Yeshey. "We didn't contradict them but we just tried to make our point clear. While we were talking to them, many people and officials from Sikkim had gathered, and the atmosphere had become more and more tense."

After dozens of local lay people had arrived for the supposedly closed event, just as the monks had predicted, the tension at Rumtek threatened to break out into open violence. "Then these people started abusing us, saying that we were the ones who wouldn't accept the Karmapa. They kept calling us 'samaya breakers'," said Omze Yeshey. Samaya is a sacred oath taken by advanced Vajrayana practitioners to obey their teachers in their roles as tantric masters; a follower who breaks samaya risks rebirth in the Buddhist hell realms.

The resident monks now feared the worst. "While these two rinpoches and their supporters prepared themselves for the Varney ceremonies, we, the legitimate and genuine monks of Karmapa, resolved to guard the monastery and to prevent the innumerable movable possessions of Karmapa from falling into the hands of outsiders and known smugglers," said Chultrimpa Lungtog. "We never dreamed that Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche had meticulously planned to take over the monastery illegally by joining forces with the local politicians." By nine o'clock in the morning, fifty young men employed by Chief Minister Bhandari as party workers from the Lal Bazaar in Gangtok had joined the crowd of shedra students and lay people from Situ's Derge Association.

Members of Situ's two political action committees -- the Derge Association from Kathmandu and the local Joint Action Committee -- were joined at Rumtek on this day by dozens of Sikkimese families. They had seen the posters that Situ had put up around Gangtok promising a big public initiation ceremony for the practice of White Tara. "Situ Rinpoche made a false announcement saying that he would give initiations on this particular day," Khenpo Tsering Samdrup, another teacher at the monk's school at Rumtek, told me. "There is no precedent for this in the history of Tibetan Buddhism -- there is no tradition of giving any initiation on the first day of Varney. He made this announcement purely in order to attract people. I think that there were many innocent people, but there were also people who knew that something was going to happen, who were aware of the plot."

"Karmapa Chenno"

By mid-morning, a total crowd of more than a thousand of Tai Situ's supporters had assembled in the monastery's courtyard. A tense standoff began outside the main temple. The Rumtek monks responsible for the shrine room locked the entrance and refused to hand over the keys. Situ and Gyaltsab led a crowd to the temple, and sat down in front of the locked doors. They held incense and chanted Karmapa chenno (Karmapa hear me), the mantra of the Karmapas. Their followers clamored for action from behind them.

The Rumtek monks began to lose control over the situation. Soon, officers sent by the Sikkim chief of police began to intervene on the side of the aggressors. "This was crossing the line between church and state, which broke India's constitution," Shamar said. "We can only guess that Mr. Bhandari must have had a very strong incentive to take such a risk." Bhandari knew that New Delhi could have taken strong measures against him for breaching the constitutional wall between church and state, up to dissolving his government and putting him in prison. As it turned out, after the Rumtek takeover, the central government did initiate an investigation into Bhandari's role to determine if his Sikkim administration had unlawfully interfered in religious affairs.

Shamar's supporters have claimed that Bhandari probably received a payment as high as one million dollars from Situ and Gyaltsab, to send state police and security forces into Rumtek in response to an incident that the two rinpoches would provoke. The money came, allegedly, from Situ's Taiwanese supporter, former government official Chen Lu An. But the only evidence for this payment, aside from hearsay. is inferential: Shamar's followers theorize that for Bhandari to openly defy India's constitution by invading a religious center, and thus risk punishment from New Delhi, the chief minister must have been well rewarded. However, both newspaper reports and government investigators have documented that Chen Lu An delivered a payment of $1.5 million to Bhandari a few weeks after the Rumtek takeover.

According to Indian journalist Anil Maheshwari, Chen visited India between November 28 and December 4, 1993 to attend a meeting organized by Karma Topden. As we have seen Topden was a leader of Situ's Joint Action Committee in Sikkim and the father of the would-be Gyathon Tulku, rejected by the Rumtek administration in the eighties. Situ Rinpoche was also present at this meeting, and Shamar's supporters claim that this meeting was connected to Bhandari receiving a second payment from Chen for the chief minister's role in the takeover of Rumtek four months earlier, in August.2 The Indian government launched an investigation, and in January 1994, the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi banned Chen from re-entering India. [3]

Whether he was paid or not, Bhandari's intervention made the difference at Rumtek on the day of the Sojong. When the police arrived, the Rumtek monks finally lost control over the monastery. "Then tension mounted and we were completely helpless," said Omze Yeshey. "The people started to throw stones; and a number of monks were injured. The police also started to beat the monks of the monastery. They put a great deal of pressure on us, telling us for instance that we would be thrown in jail if we didn't cooperate and that what we were doing was illegal." As the lay people and the policemen beat the Rumtek monks, Situ and Gyaltsab remained seated facing the shrine room doors, serenely leading the seated crowd in the chanting of the mantra Karmapa chenno.

The monks still refused to hand over the keys to the shrine room. The crowd grew angry and the police again stepped in. "Finally, with the help of the police officers, a few state government officials and the public, we were forced to hand over the key to the main temple," said Omze Yeshey, the monk-official who was one of Rumtek's omzes, or chant- masters.

Another omze, Ngedon Tenzin, told the police officers that he could get the keys but would have to go through the crowd to do so, which he was hesitant to do, since several men had threatened to beat him. "But Suten Pradhan and the other policemen assured me it would be all right and that they would protect me," Omze Ngedon said. Suren Pradhan, well known in the local area as a bully with no respect for civil rights, was rumored to have several murders to his credit. "They insisted that I go. When I started walking towards the dining hall behind the monastery, some of the lay men and women began abusing me and beating me. They took my yellow dharma robe, tied it around my neck, threw me on the ground and dragged me along the whole way from the office outside, through the courtyard to the corner of the dining hall. While they were dragging me along, they continued to beat me."

This was humiliating for the whole monks' community, since Ngedon was one of the highest officials of Rumtek. Indeed, in recognition of his ability, the Karmapa Trust would appoint him general secretary of Thaye Dorje's labrang in 2004, making him the successor of Topga Rinpoche.

Back at Rumtek in August 1993, monks came out to rescue Ngedon, but the crowd started throwing stones and breaking windows. Finally the police put an end to the fighting. Then the Sikkim Home Secretary Sonam Wangdi ordered the monks to deliver the keys within five minutes or face arrest. The monks complied, and the government official unlocked the shrine room doors. The crowd erupted in cheers. Holding incense and chanting, with folded hands and teary eyes, Situ and Gyaltsab led their followers into the temple to pay obeisance to the sacred images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas within.

Then the police began to attend to the injured monks. "The police officers told the monks that they would take them to hospital for medical treatment, but instead they threw these monks into jail" in Ranipool, a suburb of Gangtok, said Omze Yeshey. Interestingly, many of the policemen were Buddhists, and these officers carried out their orders at Rumtek apologetically, approaching the monks with the respect normally due from lay people to members of the monastic sangha in Himalayan countries. That night, in the lockup at Ranipool, Officer Suren Pradhan, who was not a Buddhist, dragged two thieves out of their cells and started beating them savagely in front of the arrested monks, with no provocation but apparently as a warning. Yet the monks were not afraid. They knew that the Buddhist guards would not allow them to receive the same humiliating treatment.

Sign or Leave

During the next three days, the new Rumtek administration of Situ and Gyaltsab pressured the monks who had not fled or been arrested to sign a document affirming that they accepted Ogyen Trinley as the seventeenth Karmapa. On August 5, the police returned, again accompanied by Bhandari's party toughs from the Gangtok market. While the monks were assembled in the dining hall, the bullies and police entered. A group of the street toughs pulled the cook out of the kitchen and smeared chili powder over his face. They told him never to cook for the monks again. Then they put up a large framed photo of Ogyen Trinley and addressed the monks.

The leaders of the gang of toughs told the monks to perform prostrations in front of the photo as police looked on. "At gunpoint we were forced to accept Ogyen Trinley of Tibet as the one and only Karmapa," said Omze Yeshey. "We had to swear an oath on our acceptance. We were told that anybody who dared to say otherwise would face legal consequences." The intruders brought tape recorders to capture each oath. Then, the gang leaders drove the young monks into the kitchen and made them pick up the kitchen knives. They had to pose in menacing positions while the police snapped photographs, apparently to allege later that they were fighting. The police would create bogus criminal files for each monk.

Several of the street toughs carried knives and demanded keys to the monastery's prayer rooms and shrines. Just as they had refused to surrender the main temple keys three days before, so now the Rumtek monks would not yield the keys. This led to another stand-off. for six nerve-racking hours, the monks stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the door to the main shrine room, while Bhandari's bullies took up positions several feet opposite them, taunting the monks and periodically threatening to attack. The Sikkim police looked on without trying to stop the bullies or defuse the situation.

The stand-off was broken only by the appearance of more police officers at about five o'clock in the afternoon, this time elite security forces of the Sikkim Armed Police. With Situ and Gyaltsab leading the way, the soldiers chased the Rumtek monks to the back of the monastery. The monks locked themselves in a small storeroom. The soldiers and street toughs together broke down the locked door and began beating the monks, injuring twenty in the process.

Three Sikkim government officials -- Police Inspector General Tenzing, the fearsome Officer Suren Pradhan, and another policeman known as Kharel -- made a speech to the monks. They warned that unless all the keys were handed over, anything could happen. In response. the monks insisted that a monastery was a private religious institution protected by India's constitution from state interference. The government officials were not impressed with this argument, and they insisted on the keys. Finally, seeing that it was the only way to avoid further bloodshed, the monks handed over the keys to the police officers.

Officer Kharel then unlocked the main temple door and announced that from now on, Situ Rinpoche would control Rumtek. Later. the Sikkim home secretary handed over all the keys to Gyaltsab Rinpoche in exchange for a signed receipt.

Finally, the police arrested more monks. "A considerable number of our monks was illegally detained and locked up in police custody for several days," said Chultrirnpa Lungtog. Monks who were not arrested fled the monastery to take refuge in the surrounding forest. After the week was out, about a hundred monks, or ninety percent of Rumtek's original monks before Situ started bringing in outsiders in 1992, left Rumtek rather than accept Ogyen Trinley as the seventeenth Karmapa.

"We were no longer allowed to enter the monastery, so we had to find somewhere else to stay," said Omze Yeshey. "This is why we had to seek refuge in Shamar Rinpoche's residence, where we could be close to the Dharma Chakra Center. He himself wasn't there. No preparations or earlier arrangements had been made. In fact it was very difficult. The house isn't that big, and we were a considerable number of monks. So we had to contend with numerous problems in terms of our accommodation."

"It is deemed strange," wrote the Hindustan Times, "that pro-China Situ Rinpoche, who has never in the past taken up any responsibilities at Rumtek has suddenly chosen to muster the Sikkim Chief Minister's support, to execute a coup d'etat, while regent Shamar Rinpoche is abroad." [4]

Monks Exiled

With Rumtek in the hands of Situ and Gyaltsab, dozens of the sixteenth Karmapa's monks had lost their home. The two rinpoches appointed former Abbot Thrangu's brother-in-law Tenzin Namgyal as the new general secretary of the monastery. Tenzin then replaced the sixteenth Karmapa's ritual, chant, and discipline masters -- most of whom had fled or been expelled -- with loyal monks to take their places. He also appointed followers ofTai Situ to fill the other top offices of the monastery and the Nalanda Institute, the monk's school at Rumtek.

"Among the student body only those without the slightest interest in studying stayed at the school," said Khenpo Chodrak, ousted as head teacher at Nalanda in the Rumtek takeover. "As for the teachers, suddenly students who had been unable to reach the required standards and had failed and had to repeat classes were installed as teachers. They were simply given the title of teacher. It was just like a stage play. Evidently they arc not qualified teachers."

The new monastery management under Tenzin asked by people in Rumtek village to sign various documents: pledges of loyalty to Ogyen Trinley, petitions for the Indian government to allow him to come to Rumtek, and denunciations of Shamar and the ousted monks. "Those who tried to resist were blacklisted and harassed by the conniving police," according to Maheshwari. "Police saw it as their holy duty to re-educate the less enthusiastic supporters of the Chinese candidate. The families who stayed loyal to Shamar Rinpoche were persecuted." [5]

In the takeover, the Karmapa Charitable Trust had also lost its offices. The trustees appointed by the sixteenth Karmapa -- or those who succeeded them, selected according to the bylaws of the group -- were unable to enter the monastery and get access to the records and files of the Karmapa Trust. Yet, the absence of Karmapa Trust trustees did not stop Rumtek's new General Secretary Tenzin Namgyal from sending out correspondence on Karmapa Trust letterhead. Later, ordered to desist by the courts, Tenzin switched to letterhead of the Kagyu International Headquarters, an office set up by Topga Rinpoche under the control of the Trust to coordinate communication with dharma centers abroad. Tenzin would later claim in court that his control of this office's assets -- basically a desk, the useful letterhead, and some rubber stamps with the office's name -- made him the authorized secretary of the Karmapa's labrang. The court would reject this argument, as we will see in chapter 13.

Situ and Gyaltsab had triumphed. In August 1993, little seemed to stand in the way of the rinpoches' plan to enthrone OgyenTrinley at Rumtek. To the delight of Situ's followers the Karma Kagyu would become closer to the Dalai Lamah the independence of the Karmapa would be compromised. But there were more sinister implications as well. Through the boy-lama, the two rinpoches would gain control over the valuables at Rumtek, including the Black Crown. Would they try to sell off these priceless relics?

For Shamar, the Karmapa Trust board members, and the expelled monks -- all acting in their own ways as the caretakers of the sixteenth Karmapa's legacy -- it was intolerable to be excluded from the Karmapa's own monastery. They feared for the patrimony of the Karma Kagyu. After 1993 they would work together to regain control of Rumtek.