Karmapa Thaye Dorje, one head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, gets married

Karmapa Thaye Dorje, one head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, gets married March 30, 2017
Trinley Thaye Dorje (via Wikimedia commons)

Trinley Thaye Dorje has abandoned his monastic life to marry a childhood friend. The ceremony was carried out in private on March 25 and announced today in New Delhi, India.

It is not uncommon for Tibetan monks to marry, which is allowed in some sects, or to disrobe. What makes this instance particularly noteworthy is that Thaye Dorje has lived at the center of a dispute in the Kagyu school over its true leadership. The other candidate for the title of “Karmapa” is Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the better known of the two and the one who was recognized by H.H. the Dalai Lama.


Karmapa is the title given to the spiritual leader of the Kagyus (one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism). The current two Karmapas are seen as the 17th in a succession of rebirths dating to the 12th century in Tibet. They are the oldest institutionalized series of rebirths in Tibetan Buddhism, preceding the more famous Dalai Lama line. Like the Dalai Lamas, they are believed to be emanations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara (Sanskrit) / Guanyin (Tibetan).

As with any line of rebirths, the recognition of a new incarnation can be contested. For instance, the boy recognized as the Panchen Lama, the second most important lama in the Dalai Lama’s Geluk school, was kidnapped by Chinese authorities and replaced with a boy of their own choosing. It is also possible for Tibetans to accept that multiple rebirths stem from a single line of succession.

The Karmapa Controversy

As written in an interview with Trangu Rinpoche:

There is this controversy on the identification of the 17th Karmapa within the Kagyu Lineage. Two senior disciples of the 16th Karmapa have identified two different boys as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa. Tai Situ Rinpoche has identified Urgyen Trinley Dorje from Tibet whereas Sharma (sic) Rinpoche has identified Thaye Dorje from India. As a result, there now appears to be two 17th Karmapas. This has given rise to much confusion amongst the disciples.

While the vast majority of Tibetans, including Trangu Rinpoche, recognized Urgyen Trinley Dorje, a small number stuck with Shamar Rinpoche and his pick. The dispute remained fairly quiet, at least from the outside, though Shamar Rinpoche is reported to have claimed that the Dalai Lama’s recognition of Urgyen Trinley Dorje amounted to a “medieval dictatorial command.”

Marriage and Beyond

It is not clear whether the move to marry will mark a significant change in the controversy. Followers who recognize Thaye Dorje as the true Karmapa may continue to do so. As for himself, Thaye Dorje said, “I have a strong feeling, deep within my heart, that my decision to marry will have a positive impact not only for me, but also for the lineage. Following the wishes of my parents, and having had time to reflect, I deeply feel that I am being true to both myself and the lineage. Something beautiful, something beneficial will emerge, for all of us.”

In his news release, he claims that his role and activities as Karmapa will continue as before, with the exception of conducting ordinations.

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