Hurts within the Karma Kagyu school – Is it time for a change of heart?

Guest Post by Joanne Clark

The latest troubles within the Karma Kagyu¹ look like the last gasp of the Tibetan tulku system. This is my opinion of course, but honestly, how can this system be justified when yet another huge group of sincere Buddhist practitioners have to reckon with the trauma of disillusion and betrayal? The tulku system is simply not a solid foundation anymore to raise a teacher of the Dharma. In my opinion. And ordaining young boys is also shaky ground. Combine them and you have trouble.

The reincarnation system belongs in the museum! It also brought great benefit at that time, but now it’s over with the tulku system.Dagyab Rinpoche

However, I want to be clear with Tibetans who might feel that by questioning the tulku system I am targeting Tibetan culture—I am questioning the Tibetan tulku system as it manifests in the West. There is a difference. In this case I am questioning the Tibetan-American tulku system. America is a place where ideas of power and royalty and adulation can get a little strange and twisted. A tulku system that might have functioned well for centuries in Tibet can easily lose its way in Hollywood-soaked America. That’s what I experienced during my years at Karmapa’s monastery. Often, I felt like I was back in my American high school.

During the years when I worked and practiced at Karmapa’s monastery in upstate New York, Karmapa Orgyen Thrinle Dorje was only a teenager, the same age as my daughter. However, while I was busy helping my daughter weather through teenage depression and excess partying, Karmapa was extolled as the raison d’etre for every action and motivation—he was the heart of Karma Kagyu practice. He was a teenager grieving for his country and parents, but thousands of us made him our root guru, visualized him at the centre of the mandala, made him the root of everything precious and good.

And at his monastery in upstate New York, Karmapa was the Goal. India was not allowing him to travel, so monastery lamas told us that Karmapa would not come until we found the millions of dollars necessary—and until we pushed past Town Board objections—to build a huge extension to the already large monastery, until the huge extension was built. The town, a rural enclave of environmentalists and hippies was not happy with the plan, so lies (and maybe corruption?) were considered necessary (and acceptable) in the pursuit of this goal. I myself sat through a town planning board meeting and listened while officials lied to the town about the numbers of guests we housed. As registrar, I knew the true numbers. I was told to pass all calls from the town to higher officials in the monastery and answer no questions myself. My co-registrar quit because he refused to lie to guests about the outbreak of bedbugs. (I wasn’t asked.)

Bronze figure of the famous yogi and saint Milarepa of Tibetan Buddhism and the Kagyu order

This was the culture, the structure being built for Karmapa. And it was not a happy place, not a place where the Dharma I have come to know better since leaving could flourish. There was a lot of squabbling and discontent and staff came and went. In my last year there, a young woman, a former staff member, committed suicide in the middle of the night beside the monastery pond. The monastery put out a statement to appease the public but not much more was said, no prayers were said for her, no remorse expressed by the lamas. This was the culture.

So when I heard that Karmapa had allegedly sexually assaulted a nun-in-training in her room at the three-year retreat centre run by the monastery and not far away, I felt like I was coming full circle, still seeing that culture thrive. This is sad. My journey after leaving the monastery was hard and long, so I can only imagine the journey ahead for so many now. And I beg monastery lamas, officials, senior students and Your Holiness as well, please please please resist the temptation to revert to corrupt means of damage control, resist the temptation to settle out of court with more hush money, which will only deepen the suffering and confusion of Karma Kagyu students. Please face this with Buddhist honesty and courage.
May this hurt become the sea change for the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that we all know in our hearts is needed.

Note: This article has been amended to address concerns expressed by Tibetans regarding the author’s strong comments about the Tulku system and also to correct misinformation regarding the location of the alleged sexual assault. (June 1, 2021)

¹ THE SUPREME COURT OF BRITISH COLUMBIA: Vikki Hui Xin Han vs. Ogyen Trinley Dorje (2021 BCSC 939 Han v. Dorje)

See also

(Editorial note: Though the Dalai Lama once said that the Karmapa and Ling Rinpoche should continue his work, the Karmapa is not really the Dalai Lama’s heir. See also: No role for the Karmapa – The Guardian)

Update July 2022

Update 2023