August 30, 2010

Karma Triyana Dharmachakra {KTD} in Transition: A Closer Look. ~ Alex Garden

Two weeks ago, elephant journal’s Bill Schwartz broke the story of the parting of ways of Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Karma Triyana Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist center and Western seat or home of the Karmapa that Bardor Tulku Rinpoche had helped to build with his own hands. At that time I explained that while Bill had solid sources for the sad story, it was a complex story, and Bill’s post was intended to be an “op-ed”—opinion piece—not a piece of journalism. Bill, backed up by myself, appealed to those in the know to contribute more information and context.

I received the below note followed by another take on the situation. Hopefully this will go a long way toward clarifying any confusion about events. ~ Ed.

Dear Waylon and Editors,

The attached article is a response to Bill Schwartz’s August 20, 2010 blog titled “Karma Triyana Dharmachakra bans Bardor Tulku Rinpoche?” I spoke with contacts at KTD and in the Karmapa’s Office of Administration who provided a much different view of what happened with the resignation of Bardor Tulku Rinpoche.

Click below image for Bill Schwartz’s piece:

The 17th Karmapa is one of the most fascinating spiritual leaders of our times—combining the passion of youth with the wisdom of his Buddhist teaching lineage. You may know that the Karmapa is already making a name for himself by instituting strong environmentalist measures in the Kagyu monasteries in the Himalayan region. Maybe you saw him teach in 2008 on the environment in Boulder [yes, I met him and was honored to present him with a copy of elephant magazine ~ WL]

Bill’s blog piece elides critical points about the Karmapa’s role in the Woodstock situation. I follow the Elephant Journal and know that you make a genuine effort to balance passion and resources. I also know that in this particular case, you expressed some misgivings about the lack of more journalistic research, and that Bill himself expressed concerns about his ability to offer much more than his personal take on the situation.

Below, I made an effort to document everything in endnotes and sourced most of the article to publicly available information. I am also happy to answer questions you or the community may have [in the comments section below].

With respect,

Alex Garden

Karma Triyana Dharmachakra {KTD} in Transition:

A Closer Look at the Changing of the Guard in Woodstock.

~ Alex Garden

Bill Schwartz in his August 20th blog entitled “Karma Triyana Dharmachakra [KTD] bans Bardor Tulku Rinpoche?” provides a view of recent events at KTD. Having been involved in Karma Kagyu Buddhism for many years, I recently spoke with Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and a representative of the Karmapa about the situation at KTD. Here is my unofficial take.

Two Karmapas Visit America

In 1980, a year before he passed away, on his third and last visit to America, His Holiness the 16th Karmapa purchased a parcel of land on the top of Mead’s Mountain in Woodstock, New York.

Over the next 30 years, KTD—a monastery and surrounding monastic complex—would be built there for the Karmapas, heads of the Karma Kagyu lineage. The 17th Karmapa, His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was finally allowed to visit KTD in 2008, ushering in a new era of a Karmapa’s spiritual presence in America. To fully support the activity of this young and dynamic 17th Karmapa, KTD would have to change.

At the time of the visit, the leadership of KTD was vested in a Board of Trustees that had been appointed by the 16th Karmapa in the late ‘70s. The three active members included Tenzin Chonyi, President and the most visible administrator. However, equally involved in all decisions were Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, who for over 30 years had been partners in the stewardship of KTD. Moreover, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche’s influence had increasingly grown as Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, the third Trustee, now 80 years old, dedicated himself primarily to presiding over the three year retreat facility owned by the Monastery in Delhi, New York, 90 minutes away from Woodstock.

Shortly after the visit, dissatisfaction with the capability of the current KTD leadership to meet the organizational challenges of the KTD’s expanding activity came quickly to a boil. In October 2008, Bardor Rinpoche offered his resignation. In response to the opportunity for administrative reconfiguration, the 17th Karmapa personally and through his Office of Administration took practical actions in accord with current American systems of organizational governance.

In November, 2008, a meeting was held at KTD, involving key KTD and KTC staff, members of affiliate centers and other valued supporters. Important issues were aired, and His Holiness spoke to the conference participants by telephone. The Karmapa promised to send a representative to KTD to thoroughly review the administrative situation.

In May of 2009, Karma Chungyalpa, Deputy General Secretary in His Holiness Karmapa’s Office of Administration, flew from India to KTD. He conducted a thorough multi-week review of the administration of KTD, interviewing the staff, surveying the workings of the programs, inspecting the books and becoming familiar with operations. He provided this detailed information to His Holiness and made recommendations.

The Karmapa acted decisively. He set the acting number of Trustees at five and appointed three new Trustees. These changes shifted Board control away from those Trustees who had been in charge almost exclusively for 30 years. His Holiness also established a new executive director position to take over day-to-day leadership of the administrative activities of KTD, so that the President and other Board members could focus on large picture issues.[i]

New appointments do not by themselves bring change. Yet, the restructuring created substantial opportunities for a significant shift in the management of KTD activities, in a manner aimed to provide a smooth transition to the new structure.

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche Resigns

Why did Bardor Rinpoche offer his resignation?

The August 20th blog by Bill Schwartz focuses on events involving lawnmowers and disputed staffing. These features of the situation are of much less significance when looking at the bigger picture, which can be drawn from the statements and actions of the Karmapa, the Board of Trustees and Bardor Tulku Rinpoche himself.

In 2000, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche started the Raktrul Foundation and a meditation center, Kunzang Palchen Ling in Red Hook, New York, a few minutes’ drive from Woodstock. Over the following years, he devoted increasing amounts of his time and resources to building this multi-million dollar center and foundation headquarters. KTD also had its own multi-million dollar building project underway at the same time, involving the building of the monastic center a few miles away in Woodstock.[ii]

Spiritually, KTD represents the Karma Kagyu lineage and focuses on preserving and offering the teachings of the Karmapas and their Kagyu lineage. Bardor Tulku Rinpoche’s center and foundation are dedicated to preserving a different lineage of teachings, which Bardor Tulku Rinpoche has described as a combination of the Barom Kagyu and certain Nyingma lineages.[iii] The Karma Kagyu and Barom Kagyu teaching lineages are known as two of the “Four Great Kagyu Branches.” The Karma Kagyu and Barom Kagyu maintain a line of distinct teachings, even though both were established by two disciples of the great 12th century master Gampopa: Dusum Khyenpa, the First Karmapa, started the Karma Kagyu order; Barom Darma Wangchuk founded the Barom Kagyu. [iv]

The Kagyu teachings from Karmapa were passed down orally from “mouth to ear,” that is, from the oral teachings of the First Karmapa to his student (who then becomes a lineage holder), to that teacher’s student, and so on through the 17th Karmapa. Indeed, “the Karma Kagyu tradition has remained strong and successful due mainly to the presence of an unbroken reincarnate line of the founder, the successive Karmapas. All the successive incarnations of the Karmapas are well known in every part of Tibet and among all Tibetan Buddhist practitioners for their accomplishments in meditation, scholarship, and the activities of benefiting beings.”[v]

The Barom Kagyu teachings were transmitted differently. Bardor Tulku Rinpoche has explained that for the span of 13 generations, the Barom Kagu teachings were not available, until revived by Terchen Barway Dorje, the first Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, who rediscovered them as concealed teachings in the 19th century, a form of transmission known as terma lineages.[vi]

For centuries, the lineages of the Barom Kagyu and Karma Kagyu have not been mixed. Lineage teachers take these commitments seriously, as we would wish. No one claims otherwise. Indeed, Bardor Tulku Rinpoche has himself publicly stated that while working for the Karmapa, he felt bound not to teach Barom Kagyu texts:

“You might wonder why I have never talked about the Barom Kagyu. My root guru was the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, and because of great devotion for him and great faith in him for more than 36 years I thought only of the service to his teachings, service to his activity, and service to his particular lineage. Out of devotion for my root guru I never mentioned the Barom Kagyu, even by name.”[vii]

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche seems to have come to a point in his life where he felt that his responsibilities to the teachings of his incarnation lineage called him away from his years of selfless service to His Holiness Karmapa.

Anguish of his students at such a parting is understandable. Tibetan Buddhism is still new to us, and as the Buddhist teachings take root in America they will no doubt transform into shapes yet unrealized. It is critical for the authentic transmission that the lineage holders of the Karma Kagyu remain free to teach the Karma Kagyu teachings, the holders of the Barom Kagyu free to teach their own lineage, and the students remain free to study what they wish. Freedom of religion is for everyone.

Transition in Context

In this context, events are cast in a new light.

The 17th Karmapa visited Kunzang Palchen Ling in August of 2008. Within a few months, Bardor Rinpoche resigned from KTD.[viii]

His Holiness Karmapa met personally with Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, where Bardor Tulku Rinpoche personally submitted his resignation letter to His Holiness. His Holiness Karmapa further took the actions outlined above, restructuring the administration.

On 12 August, 2009, the new board officially accepted the resignation of Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, thanking him for his long service to Karmapa. The KTD Board’s acceptance letter stated:

“We appreciate that you now must dedicate your efforts to fostering and teaching the termas of the Terchen Barway Dorje, and to establishing a center for those teachings at Kunzang Palchen Ling.”[ix]

In recent remarks at the last day of the North American Monlam, held at KTD, presided over by Thrangu Rinpoche, His Holiness addressed KTD via video-conference, naming in particular “Thrangu Rinpoche, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and KTD President, Tenzin Chonyi” and pointedly omitting Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, even though he was in attendance at the Monlam.[x] This statement was understood at KTD as His Holiness’s confirmation of Bardor Rinpoche’s resignation. His Holiness has handled these changes as a principled parting of the ways.

Those in the Kagyu sangha troubled by this will find their footing again, and all the lineages of the Kagyu will continue to benefit from the Karmapa’s activity.

[i] The new Board signed the letter to Bardor Rinpoche published at the Kunzang website, at http://www.kunzang.org/assets/btr/btr_biography/ktd_to_btr.pdf. The new executive director is noted at http://www.kagyu.org/ktd/contacts.php.

[ii] According to the center’s home page, the Kunzang Palchen Ling is now seeking an additional $900,000 to engage in further development to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. http://www.kunzang.org/.

[iii] For Bardor Tulku’s own explanations of these teachings, see the transcript at the Kunzang Palchen Ling blog, at http://kunzang.org/kplblog/2010/03/23/the-lineage-and-treasures-of-terchen-barway-dorje-and-the-lineage-of-barom-kagyu/ and http://kunzang.org/kplblog/2010/06/27/the-barom-kagyu-continued/.

[iv] For more details about Kagyu lineages, see Gene Smith, Among Tibetan Texts at pp. 39-46 (Wisdom 2001) and Kagyu Office website at http://kagyuoffice.org/kagyulineage.html. The other two of the four main Kagyu branches are the Phaktru Kagyu and the Tsalpa Kagyu. According to Smith, of these, the Karma Kagyu has been a significantly more active lineage.

[v] See Kagyu Office website page referenced in note iv. See also the explanation of the meaning of “Kagyu” and the short histories of the “Golden Rosary” of the Karmapas and lineage heirs students in the transmission lineage starting at http://www.kagyuoffice.org/kagyulineage.goldenrosary.html.

[vi] http://kunzang.org/kplblog/2010/06/27/the-barom-kagyu-continued/. A terma lineage involves teachings that are deliberately concealed and then rediscovered, sometimes centuries later, by enlightened masters. Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, Hidden Teachings of Tibet , (Wisdom 1986, 1997). The teachings may be unearthed written texts, visionary transmissions, and other modes; terma transmissions are distinguished from the “mouth to ear” historical transmission from teacher to student. Terma lineages are far more prevalent among the Nyingma order, but Kagyu masters have incorporated some Nyingma terma lineages into their traditions as well. Thondup at 167.

[vii] Transcript of teaching by Bardor Rinpoche, Kunzang Palchen Ling blog, at http://kunzang.org/kplblog/2010/06/27/the-barom-kagyu-continued/

[viii] Letters to the Karmapa and his General Secretary are posted at Kunzang Palchen Ling’s website, at http://www.kunzang.org/assets/btr/btr_biography/letter-to-hhk-eng.pdf and http://www.kunzang.org/assets/btr/btr_biography/letter-to-gs-eng.pdf.

[ix] See the letter of the Board to Bardor Tulku Rinpoche, referenced in note i above.

[x] Noted at http://www.kagyumonlam.org/English/News/Report/Report_20100717_1.html.

Alex Garden stumbled upon Rumtek and met the 16th Karmapa while travelling around India during the late ‘70s. That led to a lifelong connection with the Karmapa’s Buddhist lineage. Though her passion is the history of central Eurasia, she decided early on to make a living through a law career. She enjoys trekking, reading and Buddhist yoga. Her work in NYC keeps her occupied most of the time, but she remains available to the lineage when it seems she can be of service.

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