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Protocol, a Smile, and a Grammy Award - 10

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The current twelfth Tai Situ has done much to enhance the prestige of his office. He has built a sprawling modern monastery complex in northern India, Sherab Ling, housing more than six hundred monks and nuns. Some of these monks became the first Tibetans ever to win a Grammy Award.

In February 2004 Sacred Tibetan Chants, the Monks of Palpung Sherab Ling Monastery beat five contenders to win best album in the Traditional World Music category. Sherab Ling monks watched the ceremony from Los Angeles live on television with great anticipation, and they greeted news of their award with excitement. Today Situ Rinpoche proudly displays the award in his living quarters. Situ's attendant Lama Tenam Shastri explained to an Indian music reporter that "post-Grammy, Sherab Ling Monastery has made headlines across the world -- there's been great curiosity about Sherab Ling and that's translated into more visitors." [1]

In addition Situ Rinpoche launched an international campaign for world peace in the late eighties, the Pilgrimage for Active Peace. Yet, his peace effort was short-lived and died out after the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Tai Situ has made numerous teaching tours of Southeast and eastern Asia, Europe, and North America. He has also brought together lamas and Chinese politicians in an ambitious effort for the economic and religious development of eastern Tibet. Claiming the authority of the sixteenth Karmapa, he publicly recognized the nomad boy Ogyen Trinley in 1992 and has promoted him ever since as the seventeenth Karmapa. Until recently, Tai Situ was in charge of Ogyen Trinley's education.

Since Tai Situ did not respond to my offer to participate in this book, I have relied on published accounts of his recent life and views. Situ Rinpoche has been the subject of increasing press coverage in the English-speaking world in recent years. In particular, authors Lea Terhune, Mick Brown, and Gaby Naher have quoted him extensively and approvingly in their books on the Karmapa. Before writing her own book on the Karmapa, Terhune edited the Sherab Ling newsletter for a time and later helped Situ write two books of his own. In her book Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation Terhune wrote that Tai Situ was an "old, dear friend and teacher." [2]

On a visit to Sherab Ling Monastery, author Mick Brown found Situ to be genial and disarmingly casual, while still maintaining the dignity of his office. After describing how Situ met him -- "He greeted me with a warm smile, but did not get up. Protocol." -- Brown went on to relate their first conversation, a wide-ranging discussion about monastic life, the rarity of female rinpoches, and the existence of female Roman gladiators. Brown had heard that Situ "had a light humor, but this was positively surreal." [3]

Perhaps Shamar and Situ had fewer philosophical differences than they had differences of style, but their presentation could not have been more different. Situ balanced friendliness with formality. He was warm and open in casual meetings, while on special occasions he surrounded himself with ceremony and protocol, and enjoyed wearing the silk robes and elaborate headdresses of his office. Shamar, by contrast, was formal and often reserved when meeting new people or managing the monks at Rumtek, but he resisted official pomp and ceremony. When Shamar came of age in 1970, his uncle the sixteenth Karmapa offered to have a red crown made for him, as previous Karmapas had done for previous Shamarpas. But Shamar refused, saying he did not think performing crown ceremonies was useful for devotees.

Situ's upbeat style created a strong contrast with Shamar's approach to discipline at the monastery. "At Rumtek in the eighties, Situ Rinpoche would come to visit every few years, and he would bring gifts and money for everybody," Lunrig Gyaltso, one of the temple administrators expelled in 1993, told me. "Of course, this was tradition, for a visiting rinpoche to make gifts to the monastery. We liked Situ Rinpoche anyway. He was very pleasant and nice, smiling and saying kind words. But Shamar Rinpoche was in charge, and was at Rumtek everyday. He was paying for Rumtek to run, but he did not give people gifts. Also, he was always scolding the monks for not behaving properly. We were scared of him; we thought he was too strict. But after the troubles began the monks became afraid of Situ and thought that Shamar was the only one who could protect Rumtek."

In contrast to Shamar, it seems that Situ, whose family origins were more modest, has cultivated what used to be called the "common touch." And Situ has succeeded in making valuable friends in the West. At the end of her informative interview with Tai Situ at Sherab Ling, Gaby Naher enjoyed a casual conversation with the high lama, sharing photos of her dog and infant daughter. Afterwards, she felt that Situ had a "genuine concern for my well-being and the success of my book." Though she did not consider herself a Buddhist, Naher wrote that she felt blessed after meeting Tai Situ. [4]

Tai Situ has also accomplished the diplomatic coup of gaining valuable friends in Beijing and Lhasa while getting ever closer to Dharamsala. Yet, for all his likability, Situ also has been faced with as much controversy as any lama in Tibetan Buddhism. One of the first high lamas to travel to Tibet when China began opening up the country in the early 1980s, Situ established a working relationship with the Communist administration of the Tibet Autonomous Region and to a lesser extent, with officials in Beijing. This entente gave Tai Situ unprecedented freedom to operate inside Tibet and helped him to win official Chinese support for Ogyen Trinley as a "patriotic lama" and "Living Buddha."

Of course, all the time that Situ was getting close to China, he enjoyed refugee status as a guest of India. Yet, Situ apparently did not think that the Indian government would see anything wrong with his activities in China. This miscalculation has perhaps been his biggest tactical mistake. Starring in 1982, when Situ made his first trip back to Tibet, Indian intelligence began to follow his relations with China. The Indian government worried that Siru was making connections with Chinese officials who sought to gain influence in Sikkim.

In a 1997 report on the Karmapa controversy that became widely known in India, Sikkim Chief Secretary K. Sreedhar Rao summarized the government's suspicions. By joining Beijing in supporting the tulku Ogyen Trinley, Ran wrote, it appeared that "Tai Situ Rinpoche['s] group had wittingly or unwittingly played into the hands of the Chinese." [5] The full text of the Rao report is reprinted in appendix B of this book.

The next year, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs came up with an even harsher indictment of Tai Situ's role: "He abuses his position as a high Lama of Tibetan Buddhism under the garb of which he indulges in nefarious activities." [6] Situ's followers have denied that their lama gave the Indian government any real reason to worry, and they have claimed that charges against him were instigated by Shamar.

Shamar confirmed to me that he has discussed the Karmapa controversy with intelligence officials in New Delhi, but he denied any wrongdoing. "The local government in Sikkim should have helped the Karmapa Trust regain control of Rumtek after Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches illegally took over the monastery in 1993," Shamar said. "When the Sikkim administration failed to uphold the law, we had no choice but to seek help in Delhi." Indian officials were willing to listen to Shamar because they saw events at Rumtek as a threat to their control over Sikkim.

The Lords of Palpung

After the Karmapa and Shamarpa, the Tai Situpas are the leading tulkus in the Karma Kagyu hieriarchy. As we have seen, in practice, if not in Tibetan law or Karma Kagyu policy, the Situs were promoted from third-to second-ranking lamas during the 150-year-long Lhasa government ban on the Shamarpa. Before 1959, Tai Situ's labrang ran their lama's feudal lordship in eastern Tibet from the sprawling monastic complex at Palpung and dominated the Karma Kagyu monasteries of Kham.

Founded by the "Great Eighth" Tai Situ Chokyi Jungne in the eighteenth century, Palpung became the de facto headquarters of the Karma Kagyu in eastern Tibet, with more than a thousand monks. Palpung supervised one of two main publishers of religious books in Tibet, the active woodblock press in Derge. The Great Eighth Situ oversaw the printing of the Derge Canon, which remains the standard version of the Buddhist scriptures in Tibetan: the Kangyur, the teachings of the Buddha; and the Tengyur, traditional commentaries by later Indian and Tibetan masters. Palpung's library boasted more than 324,000 volumes, making it one of the largest in Tibet. Artists created more than 10,000 thangka paintings for use at the monastery. From their imposing monastic seat, the Tai Situs ruled 180 large monasteries and hundreds of smaller temples.

Previous Situs had been students and teachers of both the Karmapas and the Shamarpas. During the period of the Central Tibetan government's official ban on Shamarpa reincarnations (1792-1959), Tai Situs stepped in to take a leading role in the Karma Kagyu. But in he nineteenth century, tensions began to arise between Situ's Palpung labrang in Kham and the administration of the Karmapas at Tsurphu near Lhasa. Particularly during the childhood of the sixteenth Karmapa, the general secretary of Tsurphu at the time, Ngedon Gyatso, clashed with the Palpung administration on issues of protocol. Ngedon resisted what he perceived as efforts of Situ's labrang to assert their master's equality with the Karmapa.

On one occasion, when the young sixteenth Karmapa went to visit his guru the eleventh Situ Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo (1886-1952) at Palpung, the two were seated by Situ's attendants on similar thrones, denoting an equal rank. Situ's administration had even brought in a photographer to record the event in formal portraits, greatly irritating Ngedon and the other managers of the Tsurphu labrang. They later extracted revenge by failing to show the eleventh Situ the customary respect when he visited Tsurphu.

The current twelfth Tai Situ Pema Tonyo Nyinje was born in 1954 to a family of small farmers in Derge, the autonomous kingdom in Kham where the sixteenth Karmapa's Athub family provided government ministers for generations betare the Chinese invasion. The sixteenth Karmapa enthroned Situ at Palpung at the tender age of eighteen months, and observers noted that the toddler recognized his former attendants and disciples. In 1959, when thousands of Tibetans escaped into exile, the six-year-old Tai Situ fled Tibet in the care of his tutors, leaving behind the mighty stronghold of Palpung and its wealth in buildings, lands, livestock, and religious treasures. Several chests of Chinese silver coins would pay for their upkeep in exile.

Just as the rivalry between the Tibetan government of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa resurfaced in exile, so too did the rivalry between the administration of Tai Situ and the Karmapa.

As we saw in chapter 6, Situ's follower Gyathon Tulku tried to keep the Karmapa our of Sikkim in the early sixties. Despire the awkwardness Gyathon's plan caused between Situ's Palpung labrang and the Karmapa, Situ's caretakers initially settled in Sikkim along with the Karmapa.

The Karmapa invited the young Situ to live at Rumtek, along with two other guest boy-rinpoches, Jamgon Kongtrul and Gyaltsab. This was an arrangement without precedent. The first responsibility of any tulku's monk-administrators is to advance the reputation of their lama, because a famous lama brings wealth and power to his labrang. Back in Tibet, no Tai Situ had ever been raised by a Karmapa or had lived at the Karmapa's monastic seat at Tsurphu. Indeed, the two labrangs had often been rivals as we have seen. Since Palpung was one of the richest monasteries in Tibet, the Palpung labrang could afford to raise its own tulku in royal style.

Even in exile, Situ's labrang had enough wealth in silver coins to cover their lama's education. But given the immense prestige of the sixteenth Karmapa throughout the Himalayas and abroad, Situ's caretakers knew that their boy-lama would benefit from receiving the principal empowerments of the Karma Kagyu directly from the Karmapa. This would authorize Situ in the future to perform popular tantric ceremonies that would appeal to large numbers of devotees. In addition; the Karmapa could introduce Situ to powerful devotees whom Situ could gain as patrons for himself, such as the royal family of Bhutan.

For the advantages that an apprenticeship at Rumtek would give their tulku, Situ's labrang agreed to place him at Rumtek for several years. But Situ's caretakers remained suspicious that the Karmapa's administrators, particularly Rumtek General Secretary Damchoe Yongdu, had designs on their lama. "Now that these outsiders [Situ, Jamgon, and Gyaltsab] are under our control at Rumtek," Damchoe reportedly confided to a colleague in Rumtek's administration, "we can get them under our armpit and squeeze them."

Tai Situ's guardians had good reason to worry, and to protect their lama at Rumtek. Sim's labrang duelled with the Karmapa's administration on protocol. They complained that Situ did not receive the respect at Rumtek due to a tulku of his high station and they did what they could to bolster his position versus the other rinpoches at Rumtek.

But his labrang could not stop their boy-tulku from mixing with his classmates, especially the other high lamas under the sixteenth Karmapa's care. During their youth at Rumtek, Tai Situ told author Mick Brown, the four highest lamas were "like brothers" under the paternal supervision of their religious teacher, the sixteenth Karmapa, Situ was linked to Jamgon Kongtrul by a connection to Palpung back in Tibet. He was close to Gyaltsab because their previous incarnations were also friends. "'But Shamarpa,' he said. 'was the real friend of mine. He and I are from the same region in Tibet, Derge ... We would spend hours together playing and sharing many things. [7]

Other high lamas at Rumtek, including Khenpo Chodrak Tenphel, the abbot of Rumtek until the takeover in 1993, were also Situ's playmates in the sixties. Chodrak said that Tai Situ was a lively, outgoing boy who always took the lead on elaborate make-believe games and practical jokes. He loved playing at sword fighting and gobbled up stories of adventure and derring-do. Later, like Tom Sawyer, Situ would lead his friends in dramatizing the stories he had read.

Situ practiced the determined application of religious protocol at an early age. "On entering or leaving Rumtek Situ Rinpoche would have his monks lined up in formation," Chodrak said. "The attendants would be dressed in golden brocades, wearing rosaries with large beads around their necks and holding their gyalings, Tibetan horns, ready to blast a salute to their lama. Whenever he sat on his throne during a ceremony, there would be two rows of monks in ceremonial robes. We thought they looked like ministers attending the emperor at court."

Situ's followers say that their lama's adherence to protocol gives him a gravitas appropriate to his high office, and inspires the devotion of his students.

A Declaration of Independence

Perhaps because his labrang had been powerful back in Tibet but was much less prestigious than the Karmapa's administration in exile, at Rumtek Situ showed an early interest in outreach to gain resources for missionary work. He was quick to connect with the foreign disciples who came in and out of Rumtek on short visits during the early seventies, but it was only after leaving the monastery that he made lasting relationships with Westerners and learned fluent English.

In 1974, at the age of twenty, with the encouragement of Rumtek's abbot or Khenchen, Thtangu Rinpoche, and the eager support of his own exiled labrang, Situ announced his intention to leave Rumtek to start his own monastery.

Back in Tibet, Thrangu was a mid-level tulku -- among the "Fourth Ranking Religious Dignitaries of the Karma Kagyu School" according to the sixteenth Karmapa's roster of lamas -- and several rungs down from the leading lamas like Shamar and Situ. [8] The current, ninth Thrangu Rinpoche, now in his early seventies, was born in 1911 in Kham. When Thrangu was five the sixteenth Karmapa and the eleventh Situ recognized him as an incarnate lama. In school, he excelled in philosophy and debate. In 1959, he fled Tibet with about twenty-five monks. In exile, the sixteenth Karmapa put Thrangu in charge of the monk's school at Rumtek, and later made him abbot of the monastery. Some of his monks joined him at Rumtek, but others would remain in a refugee camp for years.

By the mid-seventies, Thrangu Rinpoche had reached a ceiling in his career at Rumtek. While other lamas were striking out on their own to found monasteries in India or far-flung networks of dharma centers in the West, Thrangu found himself an employee of the Karmapa -- for whom he had never worked back in Tibet -- and without a monastery to house his own monks. He often talked with his brother-in-law Tenzin Namgyal, an ssistant secretary at Rumtek, of moving on from the Karmapa's monastery. The monks at Rumtek heard Thrangu and Tenzin complain that the sixteenth Karmapa seemed to thwart their career ambitions and favor others less deserving for such boons as promotions. trips abroad, and financial support.

Thrangu taught Shamar and the other high lamas in his philosophy classes, but he became particularly close to Tai Situ. When Situ wanted to leave Rumtek in 1974, Thrangu supported his plan.

Tai Situ told writer Gaby Naher that by the time he was twelve, he had already received the full lineage transmission and that he was ready to graduate from the Karmapa's tutelage before he left Rumtek. [9] But Khenpo Chodrak has disputed this story.

"The sixteenth Karmapa opposed Situ Rinpoche's plan to leave prematurely, because Situ needed to receive more initiations to qualify as a full lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu," Chodrak said. "Abbot Thrangu and the officials of Situ Rinpoche's labrang had painted a bright picture of the young rinpoche's prospects on his own, and Situ was clearly determined not to further defer ,his dream to raise his administration in exile to the heights of Palpung back in Tibet. Later, after Situ's departure, His Holiness Karmapa would encourage Situ Rinpoche to return to Rumtek and receive the missing empowerments, but by that time Situ was too busy setting up his monastery and extending his work into the world outside of Sikkim."

Now that their standard-bearer was liberated from the control of the Karmapa, Situ's labrang apparently decided to get some distance from Rumtek and establish itself on the other side of northern India, far from Sikkim. Probably on the advice of Abbot Thrangu, Situ and his administration chose to locate in Bir in Himachal Pradesh, near the exiled Tibetan government at Dharamsala but a full thousand miles away from the Karmapa. Thrangu then helped Situ raise the money for a monastery by introducing him to a minister in the government of Taiwan, Chen Lu An. Chen was well connected in the ruling Guomindang party and exercised influence among wealthy devotees of Tibetan Buddhism in Taipei.

While his future rival Shamar was still living at Rumtek, Situ started building Sherab Ling monastery in Bir in 1975 and in 2005 was still completing parts of his ambitious plan. Set on forty-seven acres of wooded hillside, Situ's seat claims to host more than seven hundred monks and nuns, placing the exile cloister on a scale reminiscent of the complex at Palpung back in Tibet. The grounds feature a school for monks, multiple retreat centers, and more than a hundred stupas. The monastery also has a modern touch, with a clinic offering Tibetan. Ayurvedic, and Western medical treatments. A workshop and museum for traditional Tibetan handicrafts are in the works.

"With its efficient reception, outdoor cafe, and four-wheel-drive vehicles parked out front the establishment is a far cry from the dark, tar-infested chambers of Tibet's medieval monasteries," wrote reporter Julian Gearing. [10]

In the seventies and early eighties, the monastery grounds hosted a campground for Westerners to make extended stays to study Buddhism with Tai Situ and his lamas. The camp accommodated a couple hundred visitors at a time, and it became a popular destination for travelers who wanted to study with Karma Kagyu lamas but could not get permits for Sikkim to visit Rumtek. While Shamar was still living a protected existence at Rumtek under his domineering uncle the sixteenth Karmapa and learning Pidgin English from day visitors, Tai Situ made friends with some of the hippie-era devotees at his campground who taught him fluent, colloquial American English.

Was Situ the Sixteenth Karmapa's Chosen Disciple?

Tai Situ's supporters have told a story to bolster Situ's credentials for selecting the seventeenth Karmapa, a tale straight out of the Karma Kagyu's mystical past. After his death in Chicago in 1981, the Karmapa's body was flown to Sikkim in a coffin stuffed with salt. It was taken to Rumtek for the traditional funeral ceremony, consisting of forty-nine days of prayers followed by a ritual cremation of the Karmapa's sacred body, or kudung. At the funeral were thousands of lay devotees and hundreds of monks. Dozens of high lamas officiated at the pujas held in various parts of the large monastery, and a small number of these worked near the funeral pyre itself, built inside a specially constructed stupa made of clay.

Situ's supporters have said that an auspicious sign appeared to Tai Situ at the funeral pyre:

    During the cremation of H.H. XVI Karmapa, His heart flew from the fire and landed in front of His heart disciple, H.E. Tai Situ Rinpoche. This indicated that H.E. Tai Situ Rinpoche is the preeminent disciple of His Holiness. H.E. Tai Situ Rinpoche is considered by many people to be His Holiness' most gifted disciple. Therefore, H.H. Karmapa's closest disciples hoped that Tai Situ Rinpoche would be able to find the Karmapa's reincarnation. [11]

Situ himself has repeated this story, though more recently he has given a toned-clown version. In Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation Lea Terhune wrote that the funeral was accompanied by miraculous signs, the first of which came when Situ came to perform a ritual walk around the burning stupa. "A large. black, burning mass rolled out of the opening in front of him, an event Tai Situpa describes: 'Someone nearby, I don't remember who, pointed to the opening in the cremation stupa and said something was falling out. I saw a black, burning mass drop down into the opening. I sent a monk to tell Kalu Rinpoche, who was the eldest there, to find out what we should do. Then I waited. He sent word back that it was the heart, eyes, and tongue. I used one of the offering bowls to take it up '" [12]

Top officials of the sixteenth Karmapa's administration have disputed this story. One of these is Dronyer Ngodrup, who officiated at the burning stupa in 1981. One of the two brothers of Rumtek General Secretary Damchoe Yongdu who served in the Karmapa's administration at Tsurphu and then fled with him to Rumtek, Ngodrup is now in his early eighties. Reputed to be one of the strongest meditators in the Karmapa's labrang, Ngodrup has lost most of his eyesight but can still remember clearly what transpired at the sixteenth Karmapa's cremation in 1981.

His version does not place Tai Situ at the center of events. According to Ngodrup, along with Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche of Nepal, he served as one of two Chopons, or puja assistants, at the funeral pyre. Khenpo Chodrak worked the flames as well. While adding more sticks of sandalwood to the fire, Lapan Tsechu noticed a small round object, completely covered in flame, surfacing inside the funeral pyre. This object was visible through the main door of the funeral stupa, which faced the east. Tsechu Rinpoche then informed Ngodrup and Khenpo Chodrak. All three looked at the object, and agreed that it might be something special.

So using a long stick, the three worked together to carefully remove the ball from the flames. Since this ball was still aflame, they placed it in one of the many silver chalices that had been used for offerings. They covered the flaming ball with a second silver chalice. After a few minutes, they removed the second silver cup, and noticed that the flames had died, leaving a burnt sphere the size of a golf ball.

On examining the charred ball, the three attendants thought that perhaps this was the Karmapa's heart, because there were stories of such relics in the past, as in the case of the first Karmapa Duwm Khyenpa.

Later in the ceremony Shamar approached the funeral pyre to make offerings, and Ngodrup showed him the ball. Shamar told Ngudrup to keep the hall in the silver cup near the Karmapa's pyre. Still later in the ceremony, Situ and Beru Khyentse Rinpoches approached the burning stupa. Khenpo Chodrak pointed out the ball to Situ Rinpoche. In front of the four attendants as well as Beru Khyentse, and to their surprise, Situ silently picked up the cup and carried it away to his seat in the crowd, where he placed it under his own table.

The Rumtek officials were shocked. Traditionally, those responsible for the funeral pyre at a high lama's cremation have the responsibility to identify and safeguard any relics. In addition, it was well understood that funeral pyre relics are the property of a lama's own labrang, and not of visiting lamas from other administrations, such as Tai Situ. Thus, the Rumtek officials saw Situ's taking the silver chalice with the relic as a breach of monastic protocol. But, to avoid disrupting the ceremony, none of the funeral pyre attendants stopped Situ. They felt sure that they would be able to retrieve the cup and the relic from Situ later.

After the funeral ceremony concluded, Situ rook the relic to his guest room, the same suite where he lived as a student at Rumtek before leaving seven years earlier in 1974.

The following day, Damchoe Yongdu, Ngodrup's brother and Rumtek's general secretary, arranged a conclave of Karma Kagyu lamas and others. The meeting included members of the late Karmapa's own administration such as the Shamarpa and Topga Rinpoche and lamas from the administrations of lamas closely associated with Karmapa, including Jamgon Kongtrul; Karma Kagyu lamas traditionally not closely connected to the Karmapa including Situ and Gyaltsab; and lamas from Kagyu schools outside the Karmapa's own Karma Kagyu, such as the Drukpa and Drikung Kagyu.

General Secretary Damchoe opened the meeting and then turned the floor over to Shamar Rinpoche, who gave a speech thanking the guests, exhorting them to look to the future, and expressing gratitude to the governments of India and Sikkim. Then Damchoe recognized Situ Rinpoche, who spoke -- to a largely Tibetan audience -- in English.

In his speech, Situ spoke of the "heart sons," a term he often used to refer to the six highest-ranking Karma Kagyu lamas. He said that "the heart of Karmapa flew from the northern door of the cremation temple and the heart is with them. This signifies that the heart transmission is with the heart sons ... I have talked to all of the rinpoches and the general ecretary and I want to tell all of you ... I want a Stupa to he made out of solid gold. Big size. At least two or three meters high. When this is finished I will offer and put in this heart for everybody. Until that, this heart came in my hand. Because of that I will keep the heart with me." [13]

Rumtek General Secretary Damchoe, who did not understand English and so could not know what Situ said, was about to recognize another speaker when Shamar Rinpoche intervened. Intentionally, he whispered loudly to Situ so that others nearby, including Jamgon and Kalu Rinpoches could overhear: "Rinpoche, it would be better if you repeat what you just said in English to the audience in Tibetan." At that point, Situ stood up and repeated his remarks in Tibetan.

Situ's explanation in Tibetan elicited quite a different reaction from his audience than his English speech. Once Situ sat clown, Rumtek General Secretary Damchoe rook the floor. He was clearly angry and he challenged Situ in front of the whole crowd. "This is concerning His Holiness' heart," Damchoe said. "This is His Holiness' main seat and therefore must house his heart, and not only a two-foot high stupa, but if it needs a five- foot high stupa of solid gold, then I am going to take the responsibility that it will be made and kept here. I say this on behalf of all the people at Rumtek."

Observers report that it was embarrassing to see quarreling break out in public on such a solemn occasion. Situ smiled and replied, "Now I have the promise of the general secretary, and that wish is granted, with everybody here as witnesses." The meeting soon adjourned, leaving the Rumtek administration concerned for the future of the relic. Tai Situ remained in possession of the heart, and he kept it in his guest room.

Shamar told me his version of what happened next. The following day, at the request of General Secretary Damchoe Yongdu, Shamar went to talk to Situ in his guest room. "I told Situ Rinpoche that he should return the heart to the monastery," Shamar explained. "Situ Rinpoche said he would give back the heart, but he asked that first he would like to take the heart relic to his monastery, Sherab Ling, for a blessing and then bring it back. Afterwards, he would make a 'present' of the heart to Rumtek, because he said that the heart belonged to him. 'It is my property,' Situ told me, and he still was saying that he was the first to pick it up, even though many witnesses knew this was not true. Then, he made a suggestion that in the future, Rumtek should take the heart to Malaysia and Singapore to raise funds.

"I remembered how Situ Rinpoche had asked me to leave the late Karmapa's hospital room to take his place in Brussels, so I was suspicious of doing him more favors. Also, I was surprised and shocked that Situ Rinpoche would have the idea of taking such a holy relic abroad for fund raising. To me, this would have been quite disrespectful. But no matter, 1 tried to respond gently that any relics from His Holiness Karmapa's kudung belonged to the Karmapa's own monastery, no matter who claimed to have found them." In addition, the Karmapa's cremation was held on Rumtek land, which doubled the claim of the monastery on any funerary relics.

After this discussion, Shamar returned to General Secretary Damchoe Yongdu and reported his conversation with Situ, saying that Situ did promise to give back the heart. "The old general secretary just shook his head, not believing that it would really happen," Shamar told me. Throughout the day, the two consulted on how to prevent the heart-relic from leaving Rumtek with as little acrimony as possible. Towards this end, the general secretary and Shamar came up with a plan that the two of them executed the next morning.

At eight o'clock sharp, the general secretary posted monks as guards at each of the monastery's exits. Then, carrying a long stick of incense, Damchoe led a ritual procession complete with two gyaling trumpet players and two incense bearers. The procession wound its way first to Shamar Rinpoche's room. There, Damchoe asked Shamar to put on his ceremonial robes. Once this was done, Damchoe handed him a stick of incense, and the two led their small procession, solemnly, to Situ Rinpoche's guest room.

Arriving at Situ's closed door, Damchoe ordered the horns to blare. The door swung open, and Situ appeared in the doorway, a bit disheveled and apparently surprised. He then moved aside wordlessly, and Shamar and Damchoe entered the room. The general secretary announced that he and Shamar had come to return the heart-relic to its proper place in the main shrine room. Situ did not object. The silver chalice was sitting on top of a cupboard. Shamar picked up the cup, and in procession with another loud blast of horns, Shamar took the heart-relic in state to the Rumtek shrine room. There he presented it to Rumtek's relic master.

"I knew that Situ Rinpoche would be angry about losing the relic in this way, but I was relieved now that it was once more safe with monks of His Holiness Karmapa's own administration," Shamar said.

The Taiwan Connection

Soon after leaving Rumtek, Situ found that his ambition would take him far. Outside of the stuffy atmosphere of the Karmapa's cloister, Situ made friends easily. In the days when Tibetan lamas were still considered exotic by outsiders, Situ connected on a human level with spiritual seekers from both East and West. Former Rumtek Abbot Thrangu became Situ's mentor after the two left the Karmapa's monastery. Thrangu introduced his protege to people such as Taiwanese minister Chen Lu An who would provide valuable support to Situ to achieve his vision for his own palatial monastery and later, for the Karma Kagyu.

During the 1980s, Thrangu made several visits to Taiwan, a Buddhist stronghold where interest in Tibetan teachers was growing as rapidly as this Asian Tiger's booming export economy. It was well known among Tibetan lamas that the best fund-raising was to be had in the overseas Chinese communities of East and Southeast Asia and North America.

"In 1984, Thrangu Rinpoche came up with an idea to get money in Taiwan," said Jigme Rinpoche, Shamar's brother, a lama in his own right and the director of two large monasteries in France since the mid-seventies. Like Shamar, Jigme lived at Rumtek in the sixties and seventies. Now in his late fifties, the soft-spoken, baby-faced Jigme exudes an air of motherly care that seems ill-suited to controversy; Yet, he has been the most outspoken of Shamar's supporters in criticizing Thrangu's role.

"Thrangu Rinpoche chose a monk, he was called Tenclar," Jigme said. "He left Rumtek with Thrangu Rinpoche in 1975 and followed him to his retreat place Namo Buddha in Kathmandu. Thrangu Rinpoche had the idea to present this Tendar as a high lama."

With specific instructions from Thrangu, the new "Tendar Tulku Rinpoche" went to Taipei with the credentials of a spiritual master, in order to teach and raise funds for Thrangu's work in Nepal and elsewhere. Jigme told me that "Thrangu Rinpoche asked his own monks in Taiwan, who knew that Tendar was merely an ordinary monk, to keep his secret and pretend that Tendar was a high lama." The monks in Taiwan went along with Tendar's masquerade until the following year when Tendar himself, apparently fearful of discovery, backed out of the scheme, but not before raising enough money to demonstrate the potential of this approach to his boss Thrangu Rinpoche.

Thrangu later elaborated on this strategy and reportedly went on to promote dozens of undistinguished lamas to rinpoches. "These lamas owed their new status and loyalty to Thrangu Rinpoche personally," Jigme explained. "Later, Situ Rinpoche followed his lead, recognizing more than two hundred tulkus in just four months during 1991, as we learned from our contacts in Tibet."

In 1988, while traveling in Taiwan, Thrangu met with Chen Lu An. "Mr. Chen approached Thrangu Rinpoche with a plan to raise millions of dollars for the Karma Kagyu in Taiwan," explained Jigme Rinpoche. In exchange for a percentage of donations, a kind of sales commission that would go to his own Guomindang party, Chen offered to conduct a large- scale fund-raising campaign. Chen asked Thrangu to convey his proposal to the four high lamas of the Karma Kagyu, Shamar, Situ, Jamgon, and Gyaltsab Rinpoches.

Together, according to Jigme -- who said the Rumtek administration received reports from a dozen loyal monks in Taiwan who heard about this plan from their devotees and other Tibetans on the island -- Thrangu and Chen worked out the details of a plan to raise as much as one hundred million dollars by finding a Karmapa and then touring him around Taiwan.

Beforehand, they would create interest with a publicity campaign announcing the imminent arrival of a "Living Buddha" and promising that whoever had the chance to see the Karmapa and offer him donations would be enlightened in one lifetime. On his arrival, the tulku would perform the Black Crown ceremony at dozens of Tibetan Buddhist centers and other venues on the island.

"With such a plan," Jigme said, "according to our monks on Taiwan, Mr. Chen assured Thrangu Rinpoche that he would be able to get between fifty and a hundred people to donate one million dollars each, along with hundreds of others who would give smaller amounts."

According to Jigme's sources, Thrangu asked Chen to keep the plan to himself. He promised Chen he would personally inform the Karma Kagyu rinpoches of their plan and Chen's offer to carry it out. However, when Thrangu returned to India, he did not share the plan with Shamar, Jamgon, or Gyaltsab, but only with Tai Situ. Situ was reportedly excited by the plan. "Soon after," Jigme explained, "Thrangu Rinpoche took Situ Rinpoche on a secret trip to Taiwan to meet with Mr. Chen."

"Together, the three worked out the details of a fund-raising tour for their future Karmapa. The plan was worked out at least four years before they announced Ogyen Trinley. Situ Rinpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche wanted to bring Gyaltsab Rinpoche into their plans, but they didn't think they could trust Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche." In any event, they were apparently certain that Shamar would not agree to participate and would spoil the plan, probably exposing it as he had exposed an earlier idea of Thrangu's, to take over the Karmapa's Kaolung Temple in Bhutan.

By 1973, the dozens of monks that Thrangu had brought into exile in 1959 still lingered at a refugee camp in northern India, in uncomfortable conditions. Thrangu had long sought his own cloister in which to house them. He set his eye on one of the Karmapa's monasteries in Bhutan for this purpose. Originally a gift of the grandmother of the current king, the Kaolung Temple was located within the campus of a large secondary school in eastern Bhutan.

Abbot Thrangu must have known that the sixteenth Karmapa would not willingly grant him control of the temple. But Thrangu apparently thought that if he offered his monks as "caretakers," that he could quietly place more and more monks there, eventually making control of the temple a fait accompli. Thrangu shared the whole scheme with Shamar, asking for his help. Thrangu must have thought that he could trust his former student. But he was wrong in this. Shamar immediately shared his former teacher's plan with with Topga, who had not choice but to inform the sixteenth Karmapa, thus earning Thrangu a rebuke from the sixteenth Karmapa.

"Soon afterwards, the abbot resigned his duties at Rumtek," Jigme said. "Ever since that, Thrangu Rinpoche behaved coldly towards Shamar Rinpoche. Therefore, according to our monks in Taiwan, Thrangu told Mr. Chen that under no circumstances should Shamar Rinpoche hear of their dealings."

Khenpo Chodrak and other lamas who managed Rumtek before Situ and Gyaltsab took over the monastery in 1993 have confirmed that they received similar information from monks in Taiwan at the time. Of course, even if Chen and Thrangu were planning to tour the Karmapa around Taiwan as a fund-raiser, we cannot know what they would have done with the donations. It is possible that they would have subsidized expanded Buddhist missionary work. It is also possible, as Jigme has suggested, that the money would have been used to build support for Situ and his allies among local politicians in Sikkim and elsewhere.