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A Cloister of Ghosts - 4

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I had mixed feelings about going to Rumtek, the exile monastery of the Karmapas, in October 2004. I knew that in the sixties and seventies, Rumtek had been the functioning headquarters of the Karma Kagyu. Then, the sixteenth Karmapa had set the tone. Some recent visitors have reported that Rumtek remains a place of great activity. "That Rumtek is an active, living monastery is immediately apparent," Australian novelist Gaby Naher wrote after her visit in October 2003. [1]

According to the current Rumtek management, the monastery is a bustling place of religious activity. [2] One hundred and fifty monks rise at five o'clock in the morning daily to memorize Buddhist texts; study Tibetan and English; learn to make ritual offerings known as torma or play musical instruments; and perform tantric ritual ceremonies. Students at the monk's college regularly study the Kangyur and Tengyur, respectively, the scriptures and traditional commentaries of the Buddhist canon. At special times in the year, the Rumtek monks celebrate festivals including Losar, the Tibetan new year; the Buddha's birthday (when they recite one hundred million mantras); and the Yarney, the summer rainy season retreat. The monks also perform a ceremony on June 26 of each year -- Karmapa candidate Ogyen Trinley's birthday -- beseeching him to live a long life for the benefit of his students and all sentient beings.

But lamas who lived at Rumtek before the monastery changed hands in 1993 told me a different story. They said that after the takeover, the school has operated only sporadically and that monks' discipline has become lax. They claimed that many monks stayed on at Rumtek just for free room and board. They warned me that the monastery had "lost its blessing" and had become desanctified due to the misdeeds of its new management.

For an outsider, if this were true, what would it feel like? Would the monastery seem like a government office where employees suffer their shifts in sullen silence, their eyes on the clock for quitting time? Or would it be more like a Sunday school run by a den of thieves, with clerical robes covering powerful physiques and a hint of back-room nastiness?

I thought that it was possible that the warnings I had received about Rumtek were exaggerated. I did not imagine that the monastery would be managed by local thugs running a floating mahjong game in a secret room behind the altar. Could a Tibetan monastery in India really be so bad? At least the monks there were safely out of Chinese control and could live free of government restrictions or influence. Surely, they would be engaged in the traditional activities of a Buddhist cloister in a free country. They would be performing ancient rituals, studying scripture, and teaching each other the sublime philosophy of Shakyamuni Buddha, the way to end all suffering for all beings for all time. Even if this was done amateurishly, or without much school spirit, I could not imagine how it would be bad.

Yet, the notion of "blessing" being present or absent nagged at me. I wondered how much of the grandeur of the late Karmapa's reign remained at the monastery he built. To find out, I made the trip into Sikkim with Harrison Pemberton, an American philosophy professor.

A Kingdom Disenchanted

We entered Sikkim through the town of Rangpo, corning up from West Bengal. Sikkim is India's second-smallest state, larger than Rhode Island but smaller than Connecticut and with a population of about half a million. At a couple of tourist offices just over the state line, we arranged for the permit that all foreigners need to enter the former Buddhist kingdom.

Only in 2005, a year after our visit and thirty years after India annexed Sikkim in 1975, did India's northern neighbor China officially recognize that the place was legally a state of India. To signify this, before 2005, Chinese maps continued to depict an independent Sikkim. China's attitude made the Indians nervous about who entered the state. Indeed, after fighting two border wars with China in the sixties, the Indians still consider all the states along the line of the Himalayas to be sensitive for national defense, and they like to monitor and limit foreign visitors, to keep out spies or agents provocateurs.

The Indians had good reason to be nervous. In the sixties, the Indian army clashed with the Chinese in the Chumbi Valley, just a few dozen miles from Rumtek. The military restricted access to the whole area and tourists could only visit Sikkim for a few days after obtaining a special permit. In the last few years, as tensions with China have decreased, the government has relaxed its restrictions. Today tourists can easily visit Sikkim for a couple of weeks with a free pass granted in a few minutes at the state line. But India still keeps a close eye on threats to its peaceful control of Sikkim, foreign and domestic.

Once inside Sikkim most travelers to Rumtek pass through the state capital Gangtok. Disappointingly for the visitor, the town's traditional mountain architecture has mostly given way to gimcrack concrete boxes built in the seventies and eighties. Yet, the otherwise charmless city of 50,000 at an elevation of 5,480 feet is notable not only for its spectacular views over the steep valley of the Rangit River, but also for its cleanliness.

In an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Sikkimese after annexation, the Indian government has lavished subsidies on the local administration and tax breaks on businesses. This has given Sikkim, which competes with the neighboring kingdom of Bhutan for the tourist slogan "the Switzerland of the Himalayas," a prosperous feel missing in the areas of India and Nepal that also border it. Gangtok, like other towns in Sikkim, boasts newly paved streets with sidewalks, spacious shops, and a conspicuous absence of street-people and beggars.

From Gangtok, the drive to Rumtek takes about forty-five minutes on steep, winding roads in reasonably good repair by Indian standards. Like the main highway connecting Sikkim with the rest of India, most local roads in Sikkim also benefit from generous support by the Indian central government. This creates jobs and keeps Sikkimese drivers happy, perhaps buying some loyalty for India. But New Delhi also views good mountain roads as part of its military deterrent near the contested frontier with China. India makes it clear that it can speed troops and equipment into defensive positions along the Sikkimese-Tibetan border on a few hours' notice.

Approaching the Stronghold

Arriving from the capital, the tiny hamlet of Rumtek lay just outside the monastery. There we saw Tibetan restaurants offering mamas (dumplings) and thukpa (thick meat and noodle soup) at low prices even for India, along with modest guest houses and gift shops selling film and curios. As in Gangtok, many shops sported oval window decals picturing Ogyen Trinley with the Dalai Lamag on the Indian government to let the Karmapa go to Rumtek. "To the locals," Gaby Naher wrote in her book on the Karmapa after seeing these stickers, "or so it seems, the Karmapa is the closest thing to a local hero cum Hollywood star they have." [3]

Yet, it was clear that not everyone was a member of the young lama's fan club. The decals were conspicuously absent from other shops, showing a continued schism in the village. Some of the houses had new tin roofs, while others had roofs covered in rust. We learned that the new roofs were purchased by supporters of Ogyen Trinley, with money they had received from the Rokpa Trust of Switzerland. Rokpa, a two-million-dollar charity, was founded in the 1980s by Akong Rinpoche and run by Akong's student Lea Weiler, a former actress in Switzerland. In late 1991, a year and a half before the takeover of Rumtek, Rokpa began distributing monthly payments to sponsor families in the village as well as monks in the monastery, according to monks living at Rumtek at the time.

The bringer of this largesse, Akong Rinpoche, was recognized as the second incarnation of a ngakpa, or lay tantric practitioner, from a small village temple in eastern Tibet. In the sixties, Akong worked at a school for Tibetan lamas in New Delhi set up by the Englishwoman Frieda Bedi, who would later become a nun at Rumtek under the name Gelongma Palmo. One of the students at the school was Chogyam Trungpa, with whom Akong developed a friendship. Later, Akong became Trungpa's attendant, and accompanied Trungpa to England when he received a scholarship to Oxford in 1963.

Afterwards, the two remained in the United Kingdom and founded the Samye Ling Tibetan Center in Scotland in 1967. After a falling out with Akong in the late sixties, Trungpa left for the United States in 1970, leaving Akong in charge at Samye Ling. In the seventies, Akong became close to Tai Situ, the third-ranking Karma Kagyu lama and a dynamic, ambitious leader. In the eighties, Akong served as Situ's representative in China.

The Rokpa payments were welcomed at Rumtek but they came with strings attached. Akong made it clear that the recipients were to be prepared to help Situ Rinpoche in the future. When the time came to take sides in the Karmapa controversy, families and monks who did not support Situ's Karmapa candidate Ogyen Trinley were cut off.

From the village, we entered the Rumtek complex. Like a medieval stronghold, the seventy-five-acre compound had two thick walls and two entrance gates. The inner wall surrounded the monastery proper. forming a courtyard around the main temple, topped by the residence of the sixteenth Karmapa. Behind was the shedra, or monk's college. Up the hill was an isolated building for monks to perform the traditional closed retreat of three years, three months, three weeks, and three days. Polite guards, on loan from the Archeological Survey of India, patrolled the grounds and, at the end of the path, ran a metal detector at the entrance to the main courtyard. We noted a couple dozen guards in all parts of the monastery. Perhaps the security would not have met the standards of Washington Dulles or London Heathrow airports, and if a visitor wanted to smuggle in equipment for mischief he could probably do so without too much ingenuity.

But we were not used to seeing monasteries in India with metal-detectors or armed guards of any kind. We wondered who the guards were trying to protect from whom? "They were trying to stop the monks from burning down the monastery," Shamar Rinpoche later told us. Since Shamar and the late Karmapa's monks had been kicked out of the monastery eleven years earlier by some of those same monks we saw at Rumtek. we would have taken his opinion with a grain of salt, had we not seen for ourselves how the monks at Rumtek now appeared to live. Near the front gate was the monastery's administrative office. It was locked and empty. Was this where Gyaltsab Rinpoche, the lama in charge of Rumtek for the past ten years, was supposed to work? Gyaltsab is one of the highest reincarnate lamas in the Karma Kagyu, and one of the major players in the Karmapa dispute. Two of his earlier incarnations who lived in the seventeenth century had official roles as regents of the Karmapa's monastery at Tsurphu near Lhasa, and gyaltsab means "regent" in Tibetan. But subsequent incarnations had no administrative role at the Karmapa's monastery until the current twelfth Gyaltsab. born in 1954, took over in 1993 from the administration that had run the monastery since the sixteenth Karmapa's death in 1981. When the sixteenth Karmapa moved his seat from Tsurphu in Tibet to Rumtek in Sikkim, he made an arrangement to manage the monastery after his death. In 1962, a group of families who accompanied the Karmapa from Tibet collected 2.5 million Indian rupees (about $525,000) as a donation for the Karmapa to apply towards construction of Rumtek and his other activities. On the advice of his disciples active in the Gangtok business community, to safeguard these funds, the Karmapa put them into a legal trust. In order to form the group under Indian law, the Karmapa signed the original title deed for the Karmapa Charitable Trust at New Delhi's diplomatic mission to the still independent kingdom of Sikkim.

Though not specifically written with Tibetan lamas in mind, Indian law contains a provision for "charitable trusts" that allows reincarnate lamas to safeguard their assets in the period between their death and the time when their reincarnation reaches age twenty- one. The sixteenth Karmapa established the registered office of his trust at the Calcutta residence of Ashok Chand Burman, an Indian industrialist and devotee. The Karmapa himself was the sole trustee, and he appointed seven laymen to the trust's board, including Burman and the two top Rumtek secretaries at the time, Damchoe Yongdu and the Karmapa's nineteen-year-old nephew Topga Rinpoche.

Originally the trust board consisted solely of laymen, but in the 1980s Shamar and two of the highest ranking Karma Kagyu lamas, Tai Situ and Jamgon Kongtrul, joined the group to replace members who had died or resigned. The Karmapa Trust ran Rumtek until the monastery changed management in 1993 and the Trust was evicted from its office on the monastery grounds.

After 1993, for a brief period Tai Situ Rinpoche ran the monastery together with Gyaltsab Rinpoche, until the Indian government banned Situ from reentering India on national security grounds in August 1994. The ban was the culmination of a decade-long Indian intelligence investigation of Tai Situ's activities in China, which I will discuss in more detail later in the book. With Situ gone, Gyaltsab took charge at Rumtek. In 1998, the Karmapa Trust launched a court battle to regain control of Rumtek. Gyaltsab represented Ogyen Trinley's followers in the case, and for several years claimed that he spoke for the Karmapa's labrang, or monastic administration.

Traditionally in Tibet, monastic labrangs were fiercely independent. The Karmapa, Shamar, Tai Situ, and Gyaltsab all had separate labrangs, run as their own monastic corporations (though Shamar's was disbanded in 1792 as punishment by the government of Central Tibet, as we will see in chapter 7). Each lama lived at his own monastery rather than at the monastery of the Karmapa. In exile, each lama kept his labrang. But, in a break with traditional practice, the sixteenth Karmapa invited several high lamas to live at Rumtek for a period as children instead of being raised by their own labrangs at their own monasteries. In exile, these child-lamas did not yet have their own monasteries, and the Karmapa hoped that raising them at Rumtek would provide them with the qualifications -- tantric empowerments given by the Karmapa himself -- and valuable personal contacts to help the young lamas succeed in the future.

Gyaltsab Rinpoche was one of these lamas, and he moved out of Rumtek in the 1980s to establish his own monastery. He paid occasional visits to Rumtek in the late eighties and early nineties, but he only returned to live at the monastery in 1993, after he and Situ took over the cloister. Recently, Gyaltsab has distanced himself from the monastery's management. Lawyers for the Karmapa Trust surmise that Gyaltsab may be worried that if valuables are found to be missing from Rumtek in the futute, he could be held responsible in court. For whatever reason, recently he officially retracted an earlier claim that the Gyaltsabs were traditionally part of the Karmapa's labrang. But according to the monks living at Rumtek when we visited, Gyaltsab was still supposed to be in charge at the monastery.

We asked about Gyaltsab, but monks told us he wasn't living at Rumtek. They said he had his own monastery at Ralang, a four-hour jeep drive away. Did Gyaltsab Rinpoche come to Rumtek much? The monks said no, he has his own monastery, "Rumtek is for the Karmapa." Who was running Rumtek, then? The monks couldn't say, they just repeated that Rumtek was the Karmapa's monastery. But since neither Karmapa candidate has been allowed to take control of Rumtek or even visit the monastery (New Delhi has banned Orgyen Trinley from Sikkim; Thaye Dorje's status is unclear, but he has not tried to enter the state), we wondered if anyone was really in charge, or if the cloister was sailing aimlessly into perhaps dangerous waters, a ship without a captain?

Inside the front gate, we entered a large dusty courtyard. Monks' cells formed its perimeter, and many of their windows featured the oval decals seen in Gangtok and in the village featuring Ogyen Trinley with the Dalai Lama. We thought that the stickers indicated a politicization of the monastery that probably would not have sat well with the late sixteenth Karmapa, who took a dim view of lama politicking in general.

But when we visited Rumtek, sectarian politics seemed to be a higher priority than facilities maintenance. We did not have to look hard to see large patches of peeling paint and brown stains on the walls from water seepage and mold. Some of the window panes in the monks' rooms were cracked or shattered. We climbed up to the walkway on the roof of the monks' rooms, overlooking the courtyard. On the roof was a butterlamp sheet It also had broken windows, and its corrugated iron roof was riddled with holes from rust. Next to the shed was a building listed on the map as a VIP Gallery. The dust on its half-built cinder-block walls indicated that it had been under construction for some time.

From the roof, we observed the courtyard at mid-morning. Dozens of monks loitered in the sun, and few appeared to be engaged in religious activity of any kind. At other monasteries, we were used to seeing young monks practicing debate. Tibetan monastic debate is an intellectual contest with an athletic component that makes it very photogenic. One monk stands while his opponent is seated. When the standing monk makes a point, offering, for example, a proof that "all beings have Buddha nature," he will slide his right hand over his left, almost taunting his opponent, as if to say "ha!" But there were no monks debating at Rumtek when we visited.

We were also used to monks poring over the long pages of pechas, loose-leaf books of rectangular pages printed on wooden blocks with scripture or ceremonies in Tibetan. But at Rumtek, there were no pecha books in evidence. The younger monks sat in small groups on the dusty concrete veranda in front of their rooms. The boys giggled and seemed to tease each other. The teenagers appeared more somber, quietly talking. Stern-faced adult monks leisurely crossed the courtyard, occasionally stopping to bark at a group of young monks, apparently not in any hurry to transact their daily business.

An ornate temple stood at the center of the courtyard. Unlike the other buildings in the courtyard, the temple exterior was freshly painted and scrubbed. Inside was a cavernous shrine room with seats for the monastic sangha, or monk's body, a giant golden Buddha in front, and ritual items all around. One thousand smaller Buddha statues occupied shelves near the altar. The shrine room was free of political decals, and appeared to be preserved well as a sacred space. An eight- or ten-year-old monk ushered us in to make a circuit clockwise around the room. Silk costumes for the "lama dances," ritual plays put on by the monks as part of the liturgical calendar, were draped over some thrones against the left wall.

A throne in the center of the room held a large framed photograph of Ogyen Trinley, dressed in the traditional silks of the Karmapa. Behind, on the altar, leaned two smaller portraits of the Dalai Lama. Until Ogyen Trinley's supporters gained control of Rumtek, portraits of the Dalai Lamar centuries head of the government of Central Tibet but not a member of the Karma Kagyu school, had never been displayed at the Karmapa's monastery.

Above the shrine room sat the quarters of the sixteenth Karmapa, with a golden roof. It was not open to the public, but we could see from the ground, and from the roof on top of the monks' rooms, that it was a large suite of rooms offering a panoramic view of the monastery grounds. The exterior was plated liberally in gold and it shone brilliantly in the clear Himalayan sun. There, the sixteenth Karmapa lived until his death in 1981, though he traveled a great deal in his later years.

We then left the main monastery area, passing through a door manned by Indian guards, and out towards the Nalanda Institute, the monk's school. In a grassy area in front of the gate to the school, a couple of monks teased a young cowherd, kicking clods of dirt at him and laughing. The large modern building, perhaps five floors high, abutted a hillside. Though it was October, school was not in session, and the classrooms and offices were empty. The only monks in the area were three solidly-built men in their early twenties who sat on the school's front steps and glared at us in an unscholarly way.

Finally, we went to see the famous Golden Srupa, a traditional Tibetan pagoda holding the cremation relics of the sixteenth Karmapa. It took about an hour to find a monk in his fifties with the authority to ask the Indian guard at the entrance to the stupa-chamber to unlock the door. The monk ushered us into a dark hallway, and then, through another door, to the room with the stupa itself. A glass wall separated the stupa from a small area where another, younger monk sold maps and postcards. The older monk unlocked the glass door, and moved us into the stupa area. At his urging, we jogged once around the stupa, and then back out the glass door.

That was it. Twenty seconds and one athletic circumambulation were all that we were allowed with the Golden Stupa of the sixteenth Karmapa. We bought a map and some postcards and then made our way outside.

A City on a Hill

Apparently, it was not always like this at Rumtek. When the sixteenth Karmapa led the Karma Kagyu lamas out of Tibet in 1959, his first priority was to preserve the teachings of his school for future generations. He founded three main institutions at Rumtek, operating on a single campus, like other monasteries in the Tibetan tradition, but on a larger scale than at any other Cloister established in exile at the time.

The first was the monastery proper, with a main temple for performing ceremonies and quarters for more than two hundred monks. Here the Karmapa gave the principal tantric empowerments -- ceremonies preliminary to starting a Vajrayana ritual practice -- of the Karma Kagyu to monks and lay people alike, and the monks' community regularly performed the pujas, or worship ceremonies of the Karma Kagyu liturgy. They invoked the wrathful deity Mahakala to protect the lineage, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara to help all beings live with compassion, and other figures of the mystical Vajrayana pantheon, each bringing a particular spiritual benefit to the local community of devotees and to all living beings.

Among Tibetan monasteries in exile, Rumtek had a reputation in the Karmapa's time for a high standard of discipline. Its monks were expected to adhere to their vows, particularly those relating to chastity, which were not well enforced at some other cloisters.

The second main facility at Rumtek was the shedra, or monks' school, known as the Nalanda Institute. There monks studied the traditional Eight reat Treatises that the eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje established in the sixteenth century as the Karma Kagyu philosophical curriculum. These treasured books covered the subjects. of the Madhyamaka (philosophy of the "middle way" between realism and nihilism); the Prajnaparamita (the supreme wisdom of shunyata or openness); the Vinaya (rules for ethical living); the Abhidharma (higher logic), the Buddhist theory of perception; and the philosophy of Buddhist tantra expounded by ancient Indian pandits. The institute's day began at four o'clock in the morning and continued until about ten at night, six days a week for a challenging nine-year course of studies.

Khenpo Chodrak Tenphel Rinpoche was the head teacher at the school and the abbot of Rumtek from the mid-1970s until supporters of Ogyen Trinley took over the monastery in 1993. Now in his late fifties, Chodrak is one of the ranking scholars of the Karma Kagyu. He is also a distant relative of the late sixteenth Karmapa, and thus of Shamar Rinpoche as well. Ever since the takeover, Chodrak has been based in New Delhi, at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute (KlBl), a school set up to help students mostly from Europe, the Americas, and eastern Asia study the classic texts of the Karma Kagyu tradition in translation. When he is not at KlBI, Chodrak travels to dharma centers around the world that are loyal to Shamar Rinpoche. He is usually accompanied by his interpreter of two decades, a Swedish devotee named Anne Ekselius.

Chodrak remembers the monk's school at Rumtek when he was in charge. "For all those years, until 1992, the Nalanda Institute functioned very well. Every year our students went for sixweeks to three major Gelugpa institutes of learning reestablished in exile, Sera, Drepung, and Ganden. in order to debate and exchange views. The Nalanda Institute in Rumtek had a very good reputation as a center for higher Buddhist studies." [4] Among lamas, the educated logicians of the Dalai Lama's Gelug school, known as geshes, are considered some of the most formidable debaters of the Tibetan tradition.

From the early 1970s through 1993 a total of twenty-eight students graduated with the degree of khenpo, equivalent to a Ph.D. or doctor of divinity. Most of these students went on to teach Buddhist philosophy in India or abroad.

The last component of the Rumtek complex was the Samten Yi Wang Ling retreat center. Isolated from the other buildings at Rumtek, here monks performed the traditional long Tibetan meditation retreat. Retreatants would enter as a class of sixteen or seventeen monks and complete their days together, which were even longer than those of the shedra monks. Seven days a week the retreat center program began at three o'clock in the morning and concluded at eleven at night.

The program focused on realizing meditative power through a deep connection between body and mind, and sleep deprivation was a part of the training. Monks spent every night sitting up in wooden meditation boxes, yielding a light sleep considered ideal for the meditation practice of dream yoga, or lucid dreaming. The monks starred their retreat with the Ngondro, four preliminary practices to prepare them for higher meditations. Then they learned various tantric visualization pujas -- Dorje Phagmo, Khorlo Demchog, and Gyalwa Gyamtso -- along with the Six Yogas of Naropa. After completing a retreat, monks would preach and perform pujas. Like the shedra graduates, retreat lamas worked both in India and abroad.

Foreigners at Rumtek

The three main components of Rumtek, the monastery. the shedra, and the retreat center, drew monks from all over the Himalayas and other parts of Asia to practice and study Buddhism under the sixteenth Karmapa. It was difficult for foreigners to visit during the seventies and eighties as a result of first Sikkimese and then Indian government security restrictions in Sikkim, but those who did get one of the coveted Sikkimese visas or Indian permits and. managed to reach Rumtek express an abiding awe at the scale of activity under the Karmapa's benevolent dictatorship.

Ole and Hannah Nydahl were two of the first Westerners to visit Rumtek and become students of the sixteenth Karmapa. The Danish couple met the sixteenth Karmapa in Kathmandu in the late sixties. Beginning in the early 1970s with a single dharma center in Copenhagen, where they hosted the Dalai Lama on his first visit to Europe, the Nydahls have founded a network of more than four hundred Diamond Way Buddhist centers around the world.

A staunch partisan of Shamar, Ole Nydahl has been a lightning rod for controversy, criticized by followers of Ogyen Trinley for his flamboyant style of Buddhist preaching and for his unconventional personal life. Ole is a tall, fit man in his sixties with a blond buzz-cut that gives him the look of a Teutonic action hero. His energy comes out in his charismatic, vernacular teaching style, a frenetic schedule of world travel, and a fondness for extreme sports. It took him months to recover from a near fatal skydiving accident in 2003.

"His was an overpowering 'love bomb' approach," wrote Lea Terhune in Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation, "with whiff of the can artist about it, but his warm and friendly energy often neutralized negative perceptions of his character." [5]

Whatever Terhune and other Westerners who knew Ole Nydahl thought of him, it is clear that the sixteenth Karmapa placed great trust in the Nydahls and had a special, close relationship with Ole in particular. For his part, Ole Nydahl has credited the Karmapa with reforming him from a boxer and casual marijuana dealer into a devoted, if unconventional, student and teacher of Buddhism. In the late sixties, Ole Nydahl was a short-tempered street-fighter from Copenhagen who had gotten into buying hashish in Nepal and selling it back home in Denmark. Shamar told me the story of how the Nydahls, in Nepal on one of their supply expeditions, first met the sixteenth Karmapa in Kathmandu in 1969.

"Hippies from the West flooded into Kathmandu. Nepali traders brought all kinds of Tibetan goods from Lhasa and were selling them in Kathmandu, especially clothing. So we used to see hippie women wearing men's lama robes and hippie men wearing a Tibetan women's chuba. They were smoking a lot of marijuana. Among them one young man and young girl wearing jackets and strange-looking canteens from Afghanistan always came to the top of our monastery on Swayambhu hill, where many people were waiting. The woman did not talk much but the man was a big, smiling man who shook hands with everybody. He squeezed their hands hard and people screamed. This couple was Hannah and Ole, and they always came to Swayambhu at that time. Whenever His Holiness Karmapa came out and saw them there, he would joke with Ole, shake hands and then pull away and scream, as if Ole had broken his hand. He was always playing with him.

"After some weeks, a friendship developed between His Holiness Karmapa and the Danish man. Ole would help Gyalwa Karmapa walk down the long narrow staircases from the top of the hill, holding his hand. A very strong boy he was. Then it happened that this hippie boy was always there helping His Holiness, because he was a fat man and the stairs were all long and narrow and tricky. It naturally developed that Ole would be there to assist him.

"One day His Holiness did a very dangerous thing. On the east side of Swayambhu there is a long stone staircase, very steep. Karmapa and people started walking down. Gyalwa Karmapa was very naive. All of a sudden, he just jumped up on Ole's back. If Ole fell, both of them would start rolling down head over heels on the stone steps. When everybody saw this, they screamed. They were looking on very scared. But men, with His Holiness Karmapa on his pack, Ole managed to keep his balance. His legs were shaking, but Ole started to carry Karmapa down the hundreds of steps carved into the hillside. The crowd started cheering the blond boy. After that, all the Nepali and Tibetan Buddhist people in Kathmandu started to like Ole."

The Nydahls first visited Rumtek in 1970 when they were in their early twenties. They spent the next few years shuttling back and forth between Rumtek and Europe. In the summer of 1973, Ole requested and received authorization from the sixteenth Karmapa to give the Buddhist refuge vow to his students in Europe, thus allowing them to officially become Buddhists. In 1974, the sixteenth Karmapa stayed at the Nydahls' Copenhagen center. During the seventies, Ole and Hannah returned to Rumtek with hundreds of European visitors to receive initiations from the Karmapa and study with his lamas. They brought donations of clothing and money.

In his characteristically ebullient style, Ole Nydahl has rhapsodized on his time at Rumtek during the time of the sixteenth Karmapa: "Actually, if anything was ever holy, it was Rumtek. I can tell you that on the way to Rumtek, you would often have two black birds flying in front of you the whole way; they would stop till you came closer and then they would fly on again. Your dreams would be prophetic, there would be a blessing there, there would be a power there that you cannot express in words. You would come in, you would see H.R the sixteenth Karmapa. You would see a man who could laugh so that you could hear it five houses away. You'd see a house of power, something you'd never seen before." [6]

In 1983, in his capacity as regent of the Karmapa's administration and after consulting with Kalu Rinpoche, an elderly and venerated lama of the Karma Kagyu, Shamar gave Ole the title of "lama." By this time, the Nydahls had founded dozens of dharma centers and Ole was busy giving presentations to large audiences in his native Denmark and in neighboring West Germany. But Shamar was not close to Ole during this period, and he often criticized the Dane for his habit of giving "blessings" by touching the tops of students' heads, a practice traditionally reserved for only the highest lamas.

Meanwhile, Hannah Nydahl kept a much lower profile than her husband. A tall, slim woman in her fifties, Hannah speaks half a dozen languages, including Tibetan. For three decades, she has helped Ole open dharma centers. She has also served as an interpreter for prominent lamas on foreign teaching tours, including Shamar, Jamgon Kongtrul, and Gyaltsab. Hannah contrasted her visits to Rumtek in the early seventies to her last visit there in 1995, when she tried to visit the stupa housing the ashes of the sixteenth Karmapa.

"In the early days, as outsiders, Rumtek felt like a very powerful place and a very strong place because of the sixteenth Karmapa' s presence. He had people visiting nonstop, Indian generals, Sikkimese politicians, and many others. They respected him a lot. They were also doing pujas inside of their huge shrine room. We learned many things; we practiced as much as we could. In the old days. the sixteenth Karmapa kept quire strict discipline. Compared to other exile monasteries, there was a high standard at Rumtek. He had the monastery, the shedra, and the retreat place. You could see that the people who were trained there when they came out were quite well educated. I think all that is gone now.

"I tried to visit again in 1995. I wanted to go to the sixteenth Karmapa's stupa. Rumtek had already changed a lot. It was terrible. Actually, there was, one' time when I came alone, it was a big story, and some monks didn't allow me to come up to the place where the stupa of the late Karmapa is. They tried to block me from going up there. How could they stop me from visiting the Karmapa's stupa? So I had to go to the office and get an escort. You couldn't recognize the place, the whole atmosphere was gone, and it was rather depressing.

"Back in the seventies, the Karmapa used his influence in Sikkim to extend our visas. We took the refuge to become Buddhists and a genyen vow to observe ethics for lay people; we took them both in a ceremony where he prepared everything just for the two of us. We even shaved our heads for it. That's how strong it was for us. We just gave ourselves to him without knowing what it really meant. It was very uncomfortable; we had to kneel for an hour because he did it in the old way, very slowly, without leaving anything out. After that, he let us come to see him again and again. He also sent different lamas to explain things to us.

"There were not many foreigners in the seventies. There was this British nun Gelongma Palmo. She used to be married to a Sikh, and was called Frieda Bedi. She ran the school for young Tibetan lamas in New Delhi where Chogyam Trungpa was a student, before he went to Oxford. She was very proper, very British, and very kind. She would translate sometimes for the Karmapa and the other lamas since she knew some Tibetan. [7]

"Ole and I started leading group trips to Rumtek after 1975. The lamas were all quite poor at that time: We were not rich either, we had a very small travel budget, but we got to know everybody. So later, we could du some good for the monks and others who lived at Rumtek. We used to come in big groups nearly every year, starting with 50 and going up to 108 people. We would bring a lot of second-hand clothes, all kinds of things they could use. We felt like we had become a part of Rumtek."

For the Nydahls and other outsiders who visited Rumtek in the seventies and eighties, the monastery was the center of their Buddhist world. Under the benevolent dictatorship of the sixteenth Karmapa, the Karma Kagyu lineage had been successfully replanted there into the soil of exile. But the ghosts of a turbulent past continued to haunt the cloister. Unknown to the Karmapa, lamas and lay officials alike inside Rumtek were starting to establish relations with outsiders that would bring violence and discord to the Karmapa's cloister. To understand the threats to Rumtek that loomed in the seventies, we must travel back a thousand years into the Tibetan past.

History lives in certain parts of the world more than in others. Forward-looking places like New York or Los Angeles may display a casual apathy for history and an impatience with those who nurse grievances from the past. But this cannot be said for the American South, for example. There, blacks and whites of all backgrounds mention the War Between the States as if it was fought last month. Southerners sometimes seem to speak of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as if they had personally glimpsed them galloping down Main Street on the way to their armies. Icons like the Stars and Bars still inspire strong emotions as today's Southerners battle to reconcile their present with their past.

We have seen a stronger resurrection of feuds of centuries past in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In the Balkans, a battle between Serbs and Muslims in the fourteenth century becomes a battle cry for today. The writer Christopher Hitchens has even opined that Osama bin Laden planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks to commemorate the defeat of the Ottoman Turkish armies outside the gates of Vienna by combined Christian forces under Jan Sobieski and Charles, Duke of Lorraine, on September 11, 1683. [8] Of course, this date carried little resonance for office workers in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, but was known to many in the Moslem world -- thus showing that Al Qaeda's "message" in the attacks was meant perhaps more for the home audience than for its victims in the United States.

As we cannot understand the conflict between the West and extremists in the Moslem world without some knowledge of history as it is seen in the Middle East, so we cannot understand Tibetans today without understanding some of their history. In particular, the sectarian and regional rifts found in the Tibetan exile community today have deep roots in the past. They go back half a millennium or more to the age when lamas contended with each other through force of arms for political rule in Tibet.

Source

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