I am currently on pilgrimage/holiday in Ladakh and have been visiting some of the extraordinary, ancient Tibetan Buddhist monasteries here. I have been to Ladakh twice before and this third time (after the two years COVID lockdown) feels especially fortunate. One of my stops this visit was the little heard of Karma Kagyu monastery originally conceived of by the late 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje. This is one of the few Karma Kagyu monastery in Ladakh (the other being Mahe monastery), which are otherwise Drugpa and Drikung Kagyu monasteries mainly. I wanted to visit it and see for myself what was happening there and who was running it, as there was little information about it online.
In this short essay, I write about the history and background of the monastery, and previous visits of the Karmapas (16th and 17th to Ladakh) as well as the monastery as it is today.
May this be of benefit in bringing harmony within Karma Kagyu and may the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje return to Ladakh again soon!
Images and words by Adele Tomlin, 23rd July 2022.
History and background – conceived by 16th Karmapa (1967), inaugurated by 14th Dalai Lama (1998)
The monastery is called the Karma Drupgyud Choeling (karma grub brgyud chos gling) monastery, it is located just next to Choglamsar, the Tibetan colony area in Leh and opposite the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama. In 1967, it is said that the 16th Karmapa made a regional tour, visiting Ladakh, performed the black hat ceremony in a field outside of Leh for a crowd of thousands, and blessed the site of the region’s first Karma Kagyu monastery, where construction began in 1975. As far as am aware this is the first and only time the 16th Karmapa visited Ladakh. I am not aware of any Karmapa visiting Ladakh prior to that, do let me know if you have any other information.
UPDATE: Since writing this short essay, a reader helpfully informed me that “the relationship between the Karmapas and Ladakh (Maryul) area, started around 12th Karmapa, one of the disciples of 13th Karmapa Dudul Dorje is said to be Gyalse Rinpoche (Prince) of Ladakh. Then during 14th Karmapa Thekchok Dorje, another of his disciples namely Lama Kunga Lodro Nyingpo (3rd Langna Tulku) and Rupshu Tsering Namgyal, to whom Karmapa gave relics of Buddha Kashyapa in 1852. Those precious relics are said to be enshrined inside the Buddha statue at Korzok Gompa, Changthang. “
It is said that the original monastery was built in 1976, following the work of the 1st Venerable Lama Chime Rinpoche. I was unable to find any biographical information about him online other than this photo. If anyone has any please send.
It is reported that the 14th Dalai Lama attended the inauguration, performed the consecration, and also graced the inauguration of the Nyungney Lhakhang (Fasting Temple) in 1998. In 1999, HE the 14th Zhamarpa consecrated the whole monastery. In the same year, the 1st Venerable Lama Chime Rinpoche passed from this life.
Following constant rainfall in the region, it is said the old monastery, which was built of wood and mud, collapsed in August 2006. Little is written or known about what happened to the monastery and how it came into the ownership of 12th Zhamarpa Rinpoche after Chime Rinpoche passed away. There is no available public information about how and why that was decided.
17TH KARMAPA, OGYEN TRINLEY DORJE’S VISIT TO LADAKH (2011)
The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje did visit Ladakh in 2011 (and I have been told also in 2001 and 2008), a report about the 2011 visit can be read here. He came shortly after the flooding catastrophe in Ladakh in 2010:
“Accompanied by many Ladakhi followers, including prominent members of the Ladakh Gompa Association, Ladakh Buddhist Association, and Ladakh Women’s Association, His Holiness visited several flood affected sites during the second day of his visit to Ladakh. His Holiness was greeted by devotees on the side of the road throughout the journey. On many occasions, he spontaneously performed blessing ceremonies for the people gathered there.”
“On the morning of the 26th April, His Holiness gave a teaching to the general public at Jive Tsal, Choglamsar. Over 25,000 devotees were gathered at the Jive Tsal ground, having come from as far as Kargil, Nubra, and Changtang, dressed in their finest clothes for the occasion.”
Consecration of the Karma Drubgyu monastery in 2015
It is said that the Monastery was restored under the instruction of the other claimant to the Karmapa title, Thaye Dorje who came to consecrate it in 2015. The report of that event from his official website states that:
“Karmapa has received several important Buddhist transmissions from eminent Sakya masters, including some that actually belonged to the Karma Kagyu tradition and had been held and protected by the Sakya school for generations. Due in part to such auspicious dharma connections, Karmapa was invited to several monasteries belonging to the Sakya school. Karmapa also visited the two main monasteries of the Drugpa Kagyu, and several Drikung Kagyu monasteries.”
It is not clear if Thaye Dorje has visited the monastery again since that time. interesting to note that the other Tibetan Buddhist lineages outside of the Karma Kagyu such as Drugpa Kagyu, Drikung Kagyu and Sakya gave empowerments and transmissions to Thaye Dorje, who was not recognised by the 14th Dalai Lama or the vast majority of Karma Kagyu teachers and Tibetans inside and outside Tibet. One can only wonder what their thinking behind that was, when they say they respect and follow the Dalai Lama and so on. Anyway without wishing to traverse over old ground and open old wounds, one thing is for sure, these outside influences on the Karma Kagyu lineage have not had much influence within Karma Kagyu itself. The vast majority of Karma Kagyu teachers and followers, inside and outside Tibet, still follow Orgyen Trinley Dorje, even despite his recent personal issues and challenges and attempts to build bridges and friendships.
It is good if harmony, friendship and peace are restored in the Karma Kagyu though and I have certainly made my own attempts at that by freely sharing my original work and translations on the 16th Karmapa (see here, here and here) with the followers of Thaye Dorje (as well as promoting and sharing their website on Translating the Karmapas’ Works) and completing work on the 16th Karmapa, requested by a follower of Thaye Dorje,
For more on the 17th Karmapa’s escape from Tibet, see here. For more on the great Terton, Chogyur Lingpa’s revelation of Padmasambhava’s prophecy regarding the incarnations of the Karmapas, including the 17th, see here.
THE MONASTERY ITSELF AND THE 16TH KARMAPA
When I first arrived at the monastery, it was a Saturday so not many people there, just some monks playing basketball. The first thing that caught my eye was the HUGE prayer wheel (see below) which was not painted. I went over to turn it and yet it was completely stuck and would not move (even with two people pushing it!). A tragedy for a prayer wheel of such magnificence and size. So I went to the smaller prayer wheel there and turned that one instead.
Then there was the older main temple/lha khang. As I walked inside some monks were making torma inside but other than it was not particularly grand or well-maintained. When I came back outside I asked an elderly monk who was living there, if there was any room or living quarters where the 16th Karmapa had been and could we visit it. He did not know. Then a younger monk came along and I asked him, he told there was no place as the older building where he had stayed had been knocked down and a new building and lhakhang in its place.
I came back the following day and this time visited the new temple, which was beautifully painted and maintained. There was an image of Thaye Dorje on the throne next to the 14th Dalai Lama. There were no images of the 16th Karmapa that I saw, but I may have missed them. However, there was a Karmapa statue in the new temple, see image:
It was interesting to see HH 14th Dalai Lama’s photo was on one of the thrones at Karma Drubgyu monastery, and also on the Karma Drubgyu monastery Facebook page. The 14th Dalai Lama did not recognise Thaye Dorje as the 17th Karmapa and instead recognised Orgyen Trinley Dorje on the basis of his own dreams, signs and speaking to the main Kagyu heart sons about their choice. For a video where the 14th Dalai Lama speaks about his recognition of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, see here. Without wishing to be controversial, it does seem like some of these Tibetan Buddhist lamas praise and say they respect the 14th Dalai Lama but only listen to his advice as and when it suits them….and go their own way when it does not.
So although the monastery was envisioned and blessed by the 16th Karmapa, there was no special place or commemoration room for him there. It also made me think of how with HH the 14th Dalai Lama in town, it would have been a perfect place for the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje to also have come and stayed during these months too.
Whatever one thinks about the Karmapa issue, if people are really serious about creating peace, harmony and lack of division, perhaps it would now be a good time to show that by inviting Orgyen Trinley Dorje to visit and stay there. One can only wonder now what the 16th Karmapa’s intention was for the place and if that in fact is being fulfilled.
Anyway, for those of you who cannot visit this beautiful place in Ladakh, with the most stunning backdrop of mountains, I offer this here to all to share the blessings!