Buddhist Background of Virginia Democratic Electorial Candidate

(Corrected version, see comment here)

The Staunton News Leader has run several articles about the Buddhist beliefs of Erik Curren, Democratic electorial candidate in Virginia:

It ruffled his feathers when Augusta County Supervisor Tracy Pyles learned Erik Curren, who’s running for 20th District House of Delegates, considers himself a Buddhist as well as a Christian.

Pyles made waves Monday when he initially endorsed Curren but then spontaneously backed off, saying he has reservations about endorsing the Democratic candidate because of his faith.

“I don’t see this district electing a Buddhist,” he said.

Curren attends a Methodist Church – he is quoted as saying that “I am moved by stories from the New Testament and by the revered music of the church, from rousing hymns to haunting spirituals”. However, he is also a regular meditator and the author of a book entitled Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today; this volume used to have an official website, which has since been removed but can be seen here via Wayback. According to the book’s preface (which has also been posted here):

This book is a history of a dispute among the highest lamas with roots centuries in the past and a present of deep shame. It is a dispute over the identity of a lama called the Karmapa.

I have been a student of Buddhism for a decade. I was inspired by this ancient path’s time-tested methods to escape suffering, and by the example of compassionate living offered by Tibetan lamas. A few years ago, when I first heard how spiritual leaders who stand for love, peace, and nonviolence had behaved in this dispute I was shocked and disillusioned.

…For the past three years, I have been a student of one of the main lamas involved in the controversy, Shamar Rinpoche. Thus I cannot claim to be a disinterested outsider. Shamar even suggested that I write this book.

…Two young men are at the center of our story, and both of them claim to be the Karmapa. The four most recent books on the subject all refer to one of the young men as “the Karmapa” while calling the other by his enthronement name, the equivalent of a personal name. Here, I begin from the premise of an authentic controversy, so I do not presume to know which candidate is the genuine reincarnate. Accordingly, I do not call either candidate “the Karmapa.” Instead, I refer to each young lama by his enthronement name. I hope this will make for a fairer presentation that is also clearer for the reader.

Further details are provided in the book’s introduction (which can also be seen here):

In the twelfth century, the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa predicted that he would return to teach his students and manage his monastery in his next lifetime…When the highest lamas fled Tibet along with nearly a hundred thousand refugees from Chinese rule in 1959, the lamas re-established their monasteries in exile. The sixteenth Karmapa built the monastery of Rumtek in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, which became a state of India in 1975.

After the sixteenth Karmapa died in 1981, the lamas who ran Rumtek clashed with other lamas from the Karmapa’s Karma Kagyu school of Buddhism over finding his reincarnation, the seventeenth Karmapa. In 1992, two high-ranking lamas enthroned a boy of their choosing in Tibet. Their boy was also supported by the Dalai Lama, and, surprisingly, the Chinese government as well. Back in Sikkim, with the help of local state police and paramilitary forces, these lamas and their followers took over Rumtek monastery in 1993. In 1994, another prominent lama, the nephew of the deceased Karmapa and the lama whose predecessors had chosen the highest number of Karmapas in past centuries installed his own boy in India. Thus began a struggle over the identity of the seventeenth Karmapa that continues to the present day.

Shamar Rinpoche supports Trinley Thaye Dorje, whose website is here, while the rival Karmapa is Ogyen Trinley Dorje, whose website is here. Access to the actual monastery – despite the impression given on Ogyen Trinley’s site – is currently mired in a legal dispute (thanks to a commentator for pointing that out). One book on the controversy, Lea Tehune’s Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation (published by Wisdom Publications), resulted in a defamation suit brought by Shamar Rinpoche in India in 2004. It has been suggested that Ogyen Trinley, having been recognised by both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, may be in a good position to succeed the Dalai Lama as the Tibetan national figurehead.

Dodgy reincarnations are a problem for Tibetan Buddhism; most infamously, due to Chinese government intervention there are two Panchen lamas (one of whom has been under arrest since childhood), and in 1997 there was much scoffing when Steven Seagal was declared to be the reincarnation of Chungdrag Dorje, the “Treasure Revealer” of Palyul Monastery. And just a few weeks ago, the supposed reincartion of Lama Thubten Yeshe, a young Spanish man named Osel Hita Torres, apparently rejected his monastic destiny, complaining of a blighted childhood. Back in in the eighteenth century the Sixth Dalai Lama was a major headache, as scholar Paul Williams has described:

Not only did he refuse to take full monastic vows, but he returned the novice vows he had already taken. From now on, he decided, the Dalai Lama would be a layman. And have fun.

Tsangyang Gyatso dressed flamboyantly, roamed the streets and brothels, drank alcohol publicly, engaged in archery competitions and enjoyed pranks with his friends. He even wrote erotic poetry. Could the Sixth Dalai Lama really be a reincarnation of the Great Fifth? It seems many felt he wasn’t, and Tsangyang Gyatso was soon deposed.

Curren’s teacher Shamar Rinpoche has an official website; it tells us that

…in 1996 he started to organize the Bodhi Path Buddhist Centers, a network of centers based on a non-sectarian approach to Buddhism. The curriculum of Bodhi Path centers is grounded in the teachings of the 11th century Indian Buddhist master Atisha, as they were transmitted by Gampopa. Atisha’s methods are the most effective for taming the mind and deepening wisdom, and in addition can be taught and employed in a secular way.

He also writes on political theory:

Creating a Transparent Democracy: a New Model, the first book written about democracy by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, lays out a framework for establishing a genuine democratic system of governance that promotes the welfare and prosperity of a population. This model proposes a system of democracy based on the decentralization of political power, the promotion of political literacy among the population of democratic states, and an end to campaigning. It is Shamar Rinpoche’s wish that this new model of democracy will inspire volunteers to dedicate themselves to improving the lives of their fellow citizens through sincere engagement with the structures of their governments.

Curren Buddha's Not Smiling

(Hat tip: Get Religion)

4 Responses

  1. Hello,
    Nice article.
    I just wanted to clarify one small mistake, if I could. In this article you said “the individual now installed at Rumtek is named Ogyen Trinley Dorje”.
    However, Ogyen Trinley Rinpoche lives in Dharamsala and is not permitted by the Govt. of India to enter the state of Sikkim (where Rumtek Monastery is located), let alone the Dharma Chakra Center in Rumtek. Hence, there is no Karmapa installed in Rumtek at the present time. In fact, there is an ongoing law suit between the Karmapa Charitable Trust and Gyaltsub Rinpoche along with the State of Sikkim over the rightful possession of the monastery in Rumtek, Sikkim.
    Anyway, just to reiterate, there is no genuine activity in the Rumtek monastery at the moment and neither of the Karmapa candidates have been officially installed or even been permitted to enter the premises of the monastery.

  2. The Sixteenth Karmapa’s monastery in Rumtek is under control of monks loyal to Orgyen Trinley Dorje. It’s a functioning monastery performing the usual activities of a Tibetan monastery. The lawsuit over control of the monastery has been pending for years, maybe one day it will be settled.

  3. Jinzang la, since you mentioned this, perhaps you would be interested in this website. http://www.karmapa-papers.com. It has the latest news about the pending case. If you are interested.

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