Ogyen Trinley Dorje, one of two claimants to the title of Gyalwang Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu lineage and one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, has been accused of sexually assaulting and impregnating a nun-in-training at a monastery in New York in 2017, according to a lawsuit filed by the woman in Canada. 

The woman also alleges that she and Ogyen Trinley Dorje developed a spousal relationship and planned to live together, according to the suit, though they met just four times.  The allegations were made public this week in a ruling by the Supreme Court of British Columbia, which granted Vikki Hui Xin Han the right to seek spousal support from the Karmapa. 

The Karmapa heads the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu lineage, one of four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Neither the Karmapa’s office in India nor his attorney responded to requests for comment. 

“It should be emphasized that this is an application to amend pleadings only,” said Master Bruce Elwood, the Supreme Court magistrate who granted Han’s application. (Han’s original application only sought child support.) “The allegations by the claimant are presumed to be true for the purposes of this application. Those allegations have not been tested in a court of law.” 

A close associate of the Dalai Lama’s, the Karmapa was once seen as an heir apparent on the world stage: a charismatic and popular spokesman for Tibet and Buddhism. But almost from the start, his tenure has been filled with controversy, and he has often spoken of life as a high lama as burdensome and pressure-filled. Some Tibetans follow another Karmapa who later disrobed, married, and had a family. 

According to Han, she first met the Karmapa in 2014 when she obtained his permission to train as a nun, and two years later began a three-year retreat at the monastery in Upstate New York, which is unnamed in the suit. On October 14, 2017, the Karmapa sexually assaulted Han in her room, according to Han. 

A month later, she requested a private audience with the high lama and informed him about her pregnancy. He denied responsibility but gave her his cell phone and email address, which the two used to communicate frequently until January 2019, according to Han. 

“The parties appear to have expressed care and affection for one another in these communications,” Elwood wrote. “I say ‘appear to’ because it is difficult to fully understand the meaning and intentions of another person from brief text messages, especially those originally written in a different language.”

Han and the Karmapa used a private shorthand, sharing jokes, emojis, and digital hugs and kisses, Elwood wrote in the ruling. In 2018, the Karmapa used third parties to give Han $770,700 to pay for her hospital delivery and postpartum bills, child support, a wedding ring, and a home for the mother and child, according to Han, which she used to buy a condo in Richmond, British Columbia. 

On September 17, 2018, the Karmapa, referred to in the suit as Mr. Dorje, wrote to Han, “Taking care of her and you are my duty for life,” according to Han. 

A month later, he wrote a more cryptic note, saying he planned to “disappear” in Europe. “I will definitely find a way to meet her and you. Remember to take care of yourself if something happens.” In January 2019, he stopped responding to Han’s messages. She filed suit six months later. 

In his ruling, Elwood acknowledged the novelty of Han’s spousal claim, saying it may be “weak.” “All the traditional factors are missing,” he said, noting that the relationship began with a non-consensual assault and the couple have never lived together. 

“However,” he continued, “the traditional factors are not a mandatory check-list that confines the ‘elastic’ concept of a marriage-like relationship. And if the COVID pandemic has taught us nothing else, it is that real relationships can form, blossom and end in virtual worlds.”

Under the ruling, Han has three weeks to “produce particulars” of the alleged spousal relationship. The trial is scheduled to begin in April 2022. 

Correction: This article originally stated Vikki Hui Xin Han purchased a condo in Richmond, Washington, when the condo is in Richmond, British Columbia.

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