The recognition of the Seventeenth Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, has been the subject of controversy. Since the death of the sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, in 1981, two candidates have been put forward: Ogyen Trinley Dorje (also spelled Urgyen Trinley Dorje, born 1985) and Trinley Thaye Dorje (born 1983). Both have already been enthroned as 17th Karmapa, and both independently have been performing ceremonial duties in the role of a Karmapa. They have not met, though both have expressed a willingness and desire to meet. As one academic expert in the field testified in court, while the recognition of Ogyen Trinley "appears to have been accepted by a majority of Karma Kagyu monasteries and lamas, there remains a substantial minority of monasteries and lamas who have not accepted Ogyen Trinley as Karmapa. In particular, these include the Shamar Rinpoche, who historically has been the person most directly involved in the process of recognition." It is difficult to produce an objective description of the events because the most important developments are known only from conflicting accounts by those involved.
The Karmapa lineage is the most ancient tulku lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, predating the Dalai Lama lineage by more than two centuries. The lineage is an important one as the Karmapa is traditionally the head of the Karma Kagyu school.
Recognition of the Karmapa
As with any other lineage of tulkus, the question of recognizing the new incarnation is crucial. Sometimes, all concerned parties are sure that a particular child is indeed the new incarnation of that particular master. Such agreement was not the case with the 8th, 10th, and 12th Karmapas (each of which was resolved). A dispute has happened again in the case of the 17th Karmapa.
Karmapas have often been self-recognizing. That means that many incarnations (at least seven out of sixteen) claimed very early in life to be Karmapa, recognizing associates and colleagues of the previous incarnation. Also, each Karmapa has left indications leading to his next rebirth, often in the form of a letter. In such letters, indications regarding the location and parentage of the next incarnation were included, though usually in a poetic form that is difficult to decipher. However, the closest associates of the previous incarnation play a crucial role in the process of recognizing the next Karmapa. After all, it is they who have been closely associated with the previous incarnation and will have to raise and teach the new one.
The process of recognition has involved several different lamas since the first recognition in the early 13th century. Geoffrey Samuel writes that, "From the late 14th century onwards until the 1790s, the primary responsibility for recognising and enthroning the Karmapa normally belong to the Shamarpa." The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Karmapas were recognised by individual followers of the early Karmapas, rather than by any tulku. The Shamarpa recognised the 5th, 6th, 9th (together with Tai Situ), 10th, 11th, and (via a search party) 12th Karmapas. Tai Situ recognised the 8th, 9th (together with the Shamarpa), 14th, and (together with Jamgon Kongtrul) 16th Karmapas. Gyaltsab Rinpoche recognised the 7th and 13th Karmapas, and the 15th Karmapa was recognised by the 9th Drukchen of the Drukpa Kagyu.
In the 1790s, shortly before the recognition of the 14th Karmapa, the Tibetan government in Lhasa banned the Shamarpa from reincarnating as a result of alleged political intrigues. The Karmapa continued to recognize reincarnations of the Shamarpa, but they of necessity lived in secret and were not available to recognise the Karmapas. This ban became irrelevant when the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa both fled Tibet in the late 1950s. The ban was formally lifted in 1963.
Samuel points out that, in the cases of the 7th and 13th Karmapas, the Shamarpa of that time had died at around the same time as the previous Karmapa, meaning that there was no adult Shamarpa available to take part in the recognition. Thus, Samuel argues that "the only real exception" to the Shamarpa's preeminent role, prior to his banning, was in the recognition of the 8th Karmapa in 1506. Tai Situ has been the next most actively involved in recognising Karmapas, including two of the three recognised between 1790 and 1963.
Split recognition of the current Karmapa
Of the two 17th Karmapas, Ogyen Trinley Dorje has been recognized by Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsab Rinpoche. In July 1992, both asked the Office of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala to confirm their recognition. The 14th Dalai Lama confirmed the recognition of Ogyen Trinley Dorje. His recognition of Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the Karmapa is, in part, attributed to a dream he had of Ogyen Trinley Dorje's birthplace. As stated by the Dalai Lama, in this dream he saw a valley at a higher latitude with multiple streams and other features. Then, in the dream, a voice with no form or body said that this was the place the Karmapa was born.
Other major teachers of the Karma Kagyu lineage (e.g. the 7th Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the 9th Thrangu Rinpoche, the 7th Mingyur Rinpoche, and the 9th Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche) also hold Ogyen Trinley Dorje to be the 17th Karmapa.
The first born Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje, has been recognized by Shamar Rinpoche (regarded by some as the senior lama in the Karma Kagyu hierarchy just below the Karmapa), Lama Jigme Rinpoche, Topga Yulgyal Rinpoche, Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche, Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche, the Venerable Khenchen Rinpoche Drupon Trinley Paljor, and the Fourth Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche.
Beru Khentse Rinpoche holds a distinct minority view, saying he believes both Karmapas are legitimate. He states "it is possible that there can be two Karmapas in order to benefit sentient beings because the Karmapa can manifest in many different forms" and writes that the 14th Karmapa highlighted that "in many universes a hundred million Karmapas have manifested. The Karmapa is also the Buddha's emanation, thus until all the thousand Buddhas have come and their doctrine is not diminishing, my activity of the Karmapa emanations will not end."
Ogyen Trinley Dorje
Ogyen Trinley Dorje was born in 1985 to a nomadic family in eastern Tibet. At age seven, he was formally enthroned at Tsurphu Monastery, the traditional seat of the Karmapas in Tibet. In late December 1999, he eluded his communist Chinese minders, who prevented him from undertaking most of his traditional studies and teaching activities, and escaped over the Himalaya mountains to exile in India. He celebrated his twenty-first birthday on June 26, 2006. He has since 2002 hosted and lectured in the Kagyu Monlam Chemno, a major prayer activities gathering held in Bodhgaya every year end in which major Kagyu masters and lamas participate.
Circumstances leading to candidacy
After the death of the 16th Karmapa, Shamar Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche agreed to form a council of regents to take joint responsibility for the spiritual affairs of the Karma Kagyu lineage, alternating as the regent for the Karmapa every three years. This regency was, however, dissolved by mutual consent in 1984 having only functioned for three years after the 16th Karmapa's death.
Supporters of Ogyen Trinley Dorje claim that his birth and parentage are consistent with the prediction by Chogyur Lingpa, who, it is claimed, had prophetic visions of various events in the lives of the 14th through the 21st Karmapas. Many believe that Lingpa's statement that the minds of Tai Situpa and Karmapa "are inseparably joined as one" refers to the 17th Karmapa and the current Tai Situ Rinpoche. "The description ... is meant to show there is disagreement in this reincarnation and the mind of the 17th Karmapa and the mind of Tai Situ Rinpoche are inseparable from each other," explains the Kagyu Lama Thrangu Rinpoche, who is one of Ogyen Trinley Dorje's tutors. Although according to Thrangu Rinpoche the 16th Karmapa left two letters specifying a rebirth in Tibet, it is yet another prediction document, hidden in a locket and given to Tai Situpa, that has prompted criticism from the rival claimant's camp. Supporters of Thaye Dorje have contended that Tai Situ Rinpoche fabricated this letter; to date he has refused requests to have it scientifically analyzed, claiming this would be a violation of a sacred object.
In January 1981, nine months before his death, the 12th Tai Situpa claims that the 16th Karmapa gave him an amulet with a yellow brocade cover, telling him, "This is your protection amulet. In the future, it will confer great benefit." Although Tai Situpa wore the locket on a gold chain for about a year after the Karmapa's death, he moved it to a side pocket, not realizing its significance or that it contained a message. Tai Situpa claims that he followed an intuition to open the amulet in 1989 and found the third prediction letter, inside an envelope marked "Open in the Metal Horse Year." This letter said that the Karmapa was to be reborn "to the north, in the east of the land of snow," and when interpreted at the March 1992 meeting of the council of the four regents, was taken to mean that he would be reborn in a specific valley in eastern Tibet. The letter is reproduced on the Kagyu Office website, and reads in part:
- From here to the north [in] the east of [the Land of] Snow
- Is a country where divine thunder spontaneously blazes.
- [In] a beautiful nomad's place with the sign of a cow,
- The method is Döndrub and the wisdom is Lolaga.
- [Born in] the year of the one used for the earth
- [With] the miraculous, far-reaching sound of the white one:
- [This] is the one known as Karmapa.
Ogyen Trinley Dorje's mother's name is Loga; his father's name is Karma Döndrub Tashi, a name given to him by the 16th Karmapa. Both of Ogyen Trinley Dorje's parents' names were similar to the names in the letter produced by Tai Situpa. According to Michele Martin, the letter was interpreted to mean he would be "born ... in the area of Lhathok, which translates as 'divine (lha) thunder (thog).' The name of the remote nomadic community where Ogyen Trinley Dorje was born is Bagor, of which ba means 'cow.' The next line indicates his parents, where the masculine principle method refers to his father Döndrub, and the feminine principle wisdom refers to his mother Lolaga. The one used for the earth points to an animal that plows, and Ogyen Trinley Dorje was born in the year of the Wood Ox (1985). The far-reaching sound of the white one indicates the sound of the conch shell that is said to have miraculously resounded in the sky for hours after Ogyen Trinley's birth."
On May 22, 1992, one month before his seventh birthday, Ogyen Trinley Dorje was discovered near Bagor, Lhathok, in Eastern Tibet. According to the Kagyu official website:
- After consideration of the evidence and additional meetings with Their Eminences Tai Situ Rinpoche, Tsurphu Gyaltsab Rinpoche and Shamar Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama granted the Buktham Rinpoche, the official notification of the Dalai Lama's approval of the identity of His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa.
On September 27, 1992, Ogyen Trinley Dorje was formally enthroned at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, the traditional seat of the Karmapas, in a ceremony attended by 20,000 people. He lived in Tsurphu another seven years. In late 1999, 14-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje decided that the restrictions placed on him by the PRC government at Tsurphu limited his ability to teach his disciples and receive teachings from lineage masters. He made a daring escape over the Himalayas in the middle of winter, evading Chinese authorities and making his way through Nepal and on to Dharamsala, India, arriving on January 5, 2000.
Analysts have speculated that this retreat to India was predicted by the 16th Karmapa in his 1940 work entitled "A Song":
- In the springtime, a cuckoo comes as a guest.
- In the fall when the harvest ripens,
- it knows where to go:
- Its only thought is travel to the east of India.
- In the lofty land of Tibet, the inhabitants, high and low,
- And in particular, you, Tai Situ, the Lord and
- Protector Maitreya,
- Who remains above the crown of our head,
- May your activities, like the sun and moon set in space,
- Be continuous, stable, and without hindrance.
- I pray that we meet again and again.
According to interpretation, the "spring...cuckoo" is equated to the cuckoo that landed on the tent where Ogyen Trinley Dorje was born - one of the miraculous signs said to have accompanied his birth. The "fall...harvest" is interpreted as Ogyen Trinley Dorje's adult travel "east" to "India." Above all, the supplication to Tai Situ Rinpoche and the prayer to "meet again and again" strongly suggests to his supporters that he is indeed the legitimate tulku, should the letter be authentic.
Trinley Thaye Dorje
At age eleven, he was formally enthroned at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi.
Circumstances leading to candidacy
In October 1986 Chobgye Tri Rinpoche, senior Sakya master and head of one of the three Sakya lineages, contacted the Shamarpa and informed him about a dream he had had and about a relative of his from Lhasa who brought a picture of a child who reportedly and repeatedly announced that he was the Karmapa. In 1988 Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche was sent to obtain more information about the child.
Later an unnamed lama was sent to meet with the family and the boy without revealing the real purpose of his visit. Upon meeting with the emissary the boy promptly said "You were sent here for me." This along with other evidence convinced the Shamarpa that the boy was indeed the reincarnation of the late 16th Karmapa.
In March 1994, Thaye Dorje escaped with his family from Tibet and travelled to New Delhi where he was formally recognized during a welcoming ceremony. He took monastic ordination from Chobgye Tri Rinpoche and is at present undergoing a very intensive education under the guidance of Shamar Rinpoche, also studying under teachers such as Prof. Sempa Dorje, Khenpo Chödrak Rinpoche and others. Fluent in English, he also travels extensively in the East and the West to give lectures.
Thaye Dorje's supporters claim that the Shamarpa is fully authorised to recognise the Karmapa, and therefore no additional recognition is required or even valid.
Karma Pakshi, the 2nd Karmapa, predicted "future Karmapas shall manifest in two Nirmanakaya forms." The 3rd Karmapa recognized the 1st Shamarpa as the fulfillment of this prophecy, giving the Shamar incarnates a special relationship with the Karmapas. This is supported among others by old Kagyu literature where one frequently finds the expression of the 2 Karmapas, black and red hat. Also, when referring to former reincarnation of the Shamarpa, these are often called Karmapa and can only differentiated from former Karmapa reincarnations by their name.
Supporters of Thaye Dorje accuse Tai Situpa of forging the letter ostensibly written by the 16th Karmapa and hidden in a locket, containing clues about his new incarnation. They have requested that the letter be verified by independent experts including forensic document examiners. Tai Situ has thus far refused to allow this claiming it would be a violation of a sacred object.
Although followers of Ogyen Trinley Dorje point out that he was the only candidate enthroned in Tibet, both claimants were born in Tibet and so the prediction about the return to Tibet within these two letters is fulfilled by both claimants.
Tomek Lehnert's book claims the Dalai Lama was tricked into recognizing Ogyen Trinley by Tai Situpa who told him that all four Kagyu regents agreed he was the right candidate.
Control of Rumtek Monastery, which was the seat of the 16th Karmapa in exile, has been the subject of a legal contest. In 1961 the 16th Karmapa established the Karmapa Charitable Trust. Ogyen Trinley's followers claimed that the trust was solely established for the sake of seeing to the welfare of the Karmapa's followers, providing funds for the maintenance of the monastery, and for the monks' medical fees, but that administration of the monastery was the responsibility of the Tsurphu Labrang. The Indian Supreme Court is currently considering a related case.
According to both the official Shamarpa website and an official Ogyen Trinley Dorje website, Ogyen Trinley Dorje met with the Shamarpa in the Oberoi International Hotel in New Delhi on 9 January 2007. Ogyen Trinley Dorje had mentioned his desire to meet the Shamarpa, and requested Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche arrange a personal meeting with him. The Shamarpa had declined the first invitation in 2005, which was received by telephone call from Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche, because to have accepted it "at that time would invite unwarranted suspicions from the India government upon himself." According to Dawa Tsering, spokesperson for the administration of Shamar Rinpoche, "He (Urgyen Trinley Dorje) was confident that this meeting would bring peace in the Kagyu School in general and thus help in flourishing Buddha Dharma. This meeting has created a basis to re-unite all in the Dharma Sangha. Therefore, such an initiative should be appreciated by all."
According to the message of International Karma Kagyu Buddhist Organization published on www.karmapa-issue.org: "To underscore his willingness to be supportive, Shamar Rinpoche even provided the necessary help for Ugyen Trinlay Dorje to obtain Indian government's approval for his recent visit to the U.S., though at the same time maintaining the stance that Thrinlay Thaye Dorje is the traditional Karmapa."
The Dalai Lama and Shamar Rinpoche met on the 13th of August, 2010 at the Dalai Lama's residence to discuss ways of ending the controversy. Shamarpa wrote, "Although this matter is not easily resolved, since it is connected to the politics of China and India as well, with His Holiness Dalai Lama's blessing and support I am confident that there will be an amicable solution, which will be beneficial for the Karma Kagyü lineage, as well as for Tibetan Buddhism in general." 
In February 2011, Ogyen Trinley Dorje was accused of being a Chinese spy by officials of the government of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, due in part to the fact that $1 million cash was found in his monastery, part of it in Chinese yuan. (The Chinese government had recognized Ogyen Trinley Dorje as "the first reincarnated Living Buddha confirmed and approved by the Central Government of the People's Republic of China after the peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951," which is in itself unusual since the Chinese government is secular, Communist and has previously denied reincarnation.) However, in March 2011, the Indian central government stated that the funds found in Karmapa's possession were legitimate donations, and released some of the travel restrictions on Ogyen Trinley Dorje, allowing him to travel out of Dharamsala.
- 9th Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, "Talks on The Karmapa Controversy," 
- The Karmapa Controversy
- Khenpo Chödrag Tenphel Rinpoche at the International Karma-Kagyü-Conference 28th march 1996, Buddhismus Heute Nr. 20, 1996.
- Affirmation of Geoffrey Brian Samuel in Reply, Affirmed 11 November 2004. pp. 17-18. Statement of Professor Geoffrey Samuel, submitted as part of a court case in Australia. Samuel cites his source as Douglas and White, The Black Hat Lama of Tibet, 1976: 31-110, which summarises information primarily from the Tibetan text zla wa chu shel gyi phreng ba
- "Dalai Lama's Prophetic Dream About the Karmapa's Rebirth"
- KARMAPA LAMA - China Facts and Details
- "Lama Jigme Rinpoche". Dhagpo Kagyu Ling. Retrieved 27 June 2012.
- Letter to International Dharma Community Nov 03 - Kagyu Rime Dharjay Choling
- Letter to International Dharma Community from His Eminence Beru Khyentse Rinpoche. November, 2003
- "The speech given at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche on the third day of the Tibetan New Year, 2006". Rangjung Yeshe Publications. Retrieved 10 April 2013.
- Kagyu Monlam Chemno website
- The Sacred Letter of Prediction of HH the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa - Biographical Background Information - the Karmapa website
- Music in the Sky: The Life, Art, and Teaching of the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, Michele Martin. Snow Lion Publications 2003, ISBN 1-55939-195-2
- Table of Contents: Biographical Materials at the Kagyu Office Website
- "Press Statement from His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa Orgyen Trinley Dorje". Retrieved 2011-02-03.
- Biographical Information on the 17th Karmapa - the Karmapa website
- A Song, a poem composed by the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje when he was seventeen years old
- Rogues in Robes: An Inside Chronicle of a Recent Chinese-Tibetan Intrigue in the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Diamond Way Buddhism, Tomek Lehnert, Blue Dolphin Publishing 2000, ISBN 1-57733-026-9
- Indian Supreme Court decision on Rumtek
- Rebuttal to 2004 Rumtek ownership claim
- Letters and Statements
- Dharma Chakra Centre-Welcome
- Article: International Herald Tribune: Tibetan Buddhism's next leader? by Barbara Crossette, April 7, 2008
- Article: International Herald Tribune: Tibetans in exile debate independence by Edward Wong, November 21, 2008
- Article: Deseret News 17th Karmapa may succeed Dalai Lama by Tim Johnson, Nov. 29, 2008
- Message of IKKBO by K. Wangchuk, May 23, 2008
- Official website of HH The 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje
- Karmapa, the Black Hat Lama of Tibet by Nik Douglas and Meryl White (1975) ISBN 0-7189-0187-8
- The History of the Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet by Karma Thinley (1980) ISBN 1-57062-644-8
- His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje, Ken Holmes, Altea Publishing 1995, ISBN 0-9524555-4-4. Details of previous Karmapas as well.
- Rogues in Robes: An Inside Chronicle of a Recent Chinese-Tibetan Intrigue in the Karma Kagyu Lineage of Diamond Way Buddhism, Tomek Lehnert, Blue Dolphin Publishing 2000, ISBN 1-57733-026-9. The author is a student of Thaye Dorje.
- Music in the Sky: The Life, Art, and Teaching of the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, Michele Martin. Snow Lion Publications 2003, ISBN 1-55939-195-2. Written by a Tibetan translator, who lived for years in Nepal and India and also made many trips to Tibet. The book also gives a generous sampling of his poetry and teachings as well as the stories of the 16 previous Karmapas. The author is a student of Situ Rinpoche.
- The Dance of 17 Lives: The Incredible True Story of Tibet's 17th Karmapa, Mick Brown, Bloomsbury 2004, ISBN 0-7475-7161-9. This book covers the life of the Ogyen Trinley Dorje and clarifies the politics surrounding his recognition.
- Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation, Lea Terhune, Wisdom Publications 2004, ISBN 0-86171-180-7. Provides some background material to the present situation as well as an account of Ogyen Trinley Dorje's life. The author is a student of Tai Situ Rinpoche.
- Wrestling the Dragon: In search of the Boy Lama Who Defied China, Gaby Naher, Random House Sydney 2004, ISBN 1-74051-279-0. As stated in the book itself, this account is fiction mixed with fact. It is focused on the author's meeting with Ogyen Trinley Dorje.
Wong, Sylvia. The Karmapa Prophecies. ISBN 978-81-208-3480-4
- Kagyu Office website and page about Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje
- Home Page of Karmapa Thaye Dorje
- The site of the Tai Situpa
- Home Page of Shamarpa
- Site of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
Centres and monasteries
- The website of Rumtek Monastery
- Office of Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje's center and branches in the United States, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra
- List of centers associated with Thaye Dorje
Statements, interviews, documentaries, background material
- Interview with Thrangu Rinpoche on the 17th Karmapa recognitions from the point of view of Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje's supporters
- The Karmapa Issue website - information on the 17th Karmapa recognitions from the point of view of Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje's supporters
- Reference Materials about the Seventeenth Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje
- Home Page of the Karmapa Documentary Project
- "The Truth About the Karmapa Controversy", by Shamar Rinpoche
- HH Karmapa Thaye Dorje meets HH Sakya Trizin
- Answers to Questions about the new Karmapa
- August 13th, 2010: Shamar Rinpoche met with His Holiness Dalai Lama
- additional background material, press articles, statements, book reviews...
- Asia Times: India, Sikkim, China and a vexing Tibetan lama
- BBC News story: Who is the Karmapa Lama?
- New York Times:China Creates Specter of Dueling Dalai Lamas
- About the Chinese manipulations of the Karma Kagyü school
- A Brief Illustrated History of Karmapa-Shamarpa Lineage
- 1973 Prediction About the Future of the Kagyu Lineage By Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoché
- 2010 Shamarpa speaks about Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoché’s divination