I am here to attend teachings offered by Mingyur Rinpoche at the Tergar Monastery. He teaches in English, with simultaneous translation into Chinese, Korean, French, Russian, Tibetan, Spanish and Japanese.
In the main gompa, I am surrounded by 500 students from around the world, including monks and nuns from a handful of nations, some residents of the monastery. Mingyur sits on the dais while video is projected to two additional big screens on the right and left. It’s the largest teaching I have ever attended.
One reason there is so much interest is that Mingyur hasn’t taught in four years. He just returned three months ago from a four year anonymous wandering retreat. He left surreptitiously, took nothing with him and disappeared. He talks now of being “on the mountain,” but has not disclosed many details of his actual journey. One assumes more of that will be forthcoming.
Tergar Monastery is the home of the Karma Kagyu Lineage. As such, it is the home of the 17th Karmapa, the leader of the Kagyu Lineage, which predates the Dalai Lama’s (Gelug) lineage by two centuries and who, next to the Dalai Lama, is regarded as the highest office of Tibetan Buddhism. He is in residence at present, though not ambling about.
Tergar is a huge complex, housing perhaps 200 monks. The gompa, the principle sanctuary, is huge. When I first walked in three days ago, an hour before the formal program, there was a figure on the dais in a huge chair sitting motionless. In the darkened hall, I did not recognise him. As time passed, he remained in what appeared to be perfect meditative repose, completely motionless, not moving a muscle.
More time passed. The room filled. Announcements were made. Mingyur was welcomed and took his place just below the seat occupied by the austere and compelling presence behind him. It was only then that I wondered if this figure was even human. Was this a cardboard cutout? Then I recognised him. Duhhh. The 16th Karmapa, who died in 1981 in a hospital in Chicago from cancer. He was a most revered leader. So much so, apparently, that he remains in perpetuity on the throne at Tergar as a full-sized, life-like plastic figure, holding the space for all who would enter. But they totally had me…for an hour!
Yesterday, at lunch, a crowd of monks left the teaching and piled into two SUVs and took off in a cloud of dust. Apparently, they enjoyed lunch together at a nearby 5-star hotel, the Maha Bodhi. Here’s the Tergar leadership below. Seated at the head of the table, the Don, the 17th Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje with Mingyur to his left and other lieutenants around the table.
Why characterise them this way? Because as much as Tibetan Buddhism is thriving around the world, with many important schools in India and Nepal, with excellent teachers nursing their impact and prominence, there are some big political issues on the horizon that have implications for the long term. I’m sure it’s all very quiet and nuanced, but the stakes are high.
Primary among these issues is the fact that there are two Karmapas. One of them has the support of China. The other does not. When the Dalai Lama dies, there may be a more intense struggle to determine who is the authentic Karmapa, just as there will be a struggle to determine the next Dalai Lama. Back in 2011, China decided that Tibetan monks living in Tibet must ask permission from the Chinese government to reincarnate. They also let it be known in no uncertain terms that they will choose the next Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has said that if he reincarnates, it will be outside Tibet. Perhaps this is the reason that Tenzin Gyatso has also said that he may not reincarnate at all, that the institution has run its course.
Regardless of what happens, there are large properties, long-established institutions and lineages all over the world that will be effected. It’s impossible to predict what will happen, but my guess is that there are already substantial conversations going on about the political questions that will arise in the future.
What will happen if the leadership of Tibetan Buddhism is splintered, or even disappears?
Will there be a descent into spiritual territoriality? Impossible to say. But it’s the last thing we need more of in this world.