Two prominent Tibetan Buddhist leaders—Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Thaye Dorje, who are rival claimants to the title of 17th Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu lineage—met for the first time in the beginning of October, according to a joint statement from both figures released on October 11. The move signifies a major event in both Karmapas’ efforts to resolve a sectarian divide more than three decades old.
The rift began after the passing of the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924–1981), when two Karma Kagyu lineage holders identified and enthroned different successors. The 14th Shamar Rinpoche (1952–2014), who bore what many regard as the second-ranking title in the history of the lineage, recognized Thaye Dorje, while Tai Situ Rinpoche, 64, another high-ranking lama, recognized Ogyen Trinley Dorje. In the years that followed, both Karmapas assumed their titles as prominent figures lined up to support the opposing claims. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, several prominent Kagyu teachers, and the People’s Republic of China recognized Ogyen Trinley Dorje, while many other high-profile lamas backed Thaye Dorje, arguing that the authority over succession lies entirely with Shamar Rinpoche. Thereafter, a previously unified sangha split into two, and opposing loyalties caused tension, resentment, and even speculations of criminal activity.
But the two Karmapas’ meeting earlier this week in rural France could signal the start of a new chapter.
According to the joint statement, the Karmapas hoped to establish a personal relationship and to discuss the future of the roughly 900-year-old Karma Kagyu lineage. They talked about ways that they could heal the divisions that have formed within the sangha [community] and were optimistic about developing a strong individual connection.
“This undertaking is critically important for the future of the Karma Kagyu lineage,” Karmapas Ogyen Trinley Dorje, 33, and Thaye Dorje, 35, wrote, “as well as for the future of Tibetan Buddhism and the benefit of all sentient beings.”
The Karmapas’ momentous meeting was not entirely unexpected. In March, Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje spoke in earnest about his wish to resolve the sectarian divide through a video recording aired at the Kagyu Monlam, an annual multi-day prayer ceremony held in Bodhgaya, India. He insisted that inter-lineage reconciliation could be possible, but that he could not be alone in striving for it. In June, Tricycle asked Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje in Queens, New York, about his efforts to resolve the schism. Unable to offer specific details, he nonetheless confirmed that plans were in the works. The recent meeting in France might be the culmination of those plans.
There is a long way to go before the two-Karmapa conundrum can be entirely resolved. For now, the debate over who will hold the unofficial seat-in-exile at Rumtek Monastery, in Sikkim, India, persists. But the Karmapas’ first meeting may indicate a non-divisive future on the horizon.
“We both had this wish for many years,” the Karmapas wrote in their statement. “We are gratified that [it] has now been fulfilled.”
Many students in the greater Kagyu community rejoiced on Thursday after hearing the news. Justin von Bujdoss, executive director of chaplaincy and wellness for the New York City Department of Correction, wrote to Tricycle:
The mind of the Karmapas is no different than the mind of all of the buddhas of the three times and ten directions, which of course is no different from our own mind.
I pray that we can come together as one unified family and that the lineage that began with [the 11th-century Buddhist master] Tilopa can continue to bring benefit for countless beings.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Achi Tsepal, who served as the 16th Karmapa’s personal secretary and translator during his travels to the US in the 1970s. When the sangha is split, Tsepal told Tricycle, the doors are opened to conflict over power, money, and politics, ultimately sacrificing the integrity of the lineage’s Buddhist teachings and practice. Tsepal sees the duo’s union as the herald of a centralized, cohesive Karma Kagyu to come—a lineage in which there will be only one successor, the 18th Karmapa.
Read Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Thaye Dorje’s full joint statement here.
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